While the literature on education and ecology reports benefits of active learning and hands-on activities, K-12 teachers in underresourced schools often have trouble implementing these activities due to time and funding constraints. It is common in Nevada to find K-12 teachers paying for classroom materials out-of-pocket. Outdoor learning experiences, such as garden classrooms or field trips, are not always accessible to underresourced classrooms. While over the long term we must continue to improve teachers’ access to resources, what tools can be provided now to improve classroom access to active learning tools?
Here, we test the proposition that virtual learning tools can broaden access to active learning and hands-on activities in ecology for classrooms. We explore teacher perceptions of virtual learning in Nevada Title 1 schools to determine if these experiences can be a helpful supplement to classroom education. Nevada is a good case study for quantifying and qualifying effectiveness and feasibility of virtual educational tools because of its diverse population and low per-student expenditures in public schools.
In this two-phase study, we present K-12 teacher perceptions of virtual learning. First, we share the results of a teacher survey on the potential value of and barriers to using virtual learning tools vis-à-vis time and funding constraints. Teacher perceptions are compared with current literature on virtual learning in K-12 to assess gaps between current practice in Nevada and the literature. Second, we present teachers’ evaluations of the pilot of a “Virtual Green Box”: a virtual lab for high school ecology developed with real scientific data generated from the Desert Research Institute’s EcoCELL facility. The EcoCELL facility is an Ecologically Controlled Enclosed Lysimeter Laboratory that allows for full plant-canopy gas exchange. This lab activity uses garden plots of radishes to explore the main components of ecosystem carbon cycling using two plots (high density vs. low density) cultivated in two EcoCELLs. Students observe plant canopy leaf area development over 30 days and can access student-controllable pan-tilt-zoom webcams. In the process, students investigate net ecosystem CO2 balance, diurnal cycles of respiration and photosynthesis, and their relationship to crop leaf area as influenced by planting density. Students work in groups to analyze the data, draw implications for agriculture, and learn about ecosystem feedbacks to climate change. We present the results of teacher evaluations of this activity for its effectiveness as a virtual lab, teacher confidence in teaching a new lesson virtually, and teacher perceptions of student engagement.