Q&A: How students venture into California’s parks with Skype in the Classroom

Skype in the Classroom celebrates Earth Day (April 22nd) throughout the month with virtual field trips to beautiful parks around the world, with lessons on climate change and animals of all types, along with Skype sessions with ocean experts and classes on all of these topics (and more).

Today, we’re sharing a quick Q&A we conducted with Brad Krey, the program manager for an innovative program that lets students worldwide discover and learn from the beautiful sites overseen by the California Department of Parks and Recreation.


How are you and your team using Skype in the Classroom to reach students around the world?


California State Parks uses Skype in the Classroom as a platform for its Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students (PORTS) Program. PORTS is a digital package of K-12 resources that includes project-based learning units, open education resources via the Smithsonian’s Digital Learning Lab and, just recently, virtual and augmented content. The live videoconference component, delivered through Skype in the Classroom, lets K-12 students around the world speak to a content expert at a California State Park and learn more about globally relevant topics, like ocean conservation, climate change, and immigration.


What are some parks that classrooms can visit via Skype in the Classroom?


We have about a dozen California State Parks that participate in Skype in the Classroom. Ranging from Redwood parks on the remote northern coast, to Hearst Castle, a Nationally Registered Historic Landmark. While a dozen parks only represent a small fraction of all California State Parks (there are actually 280 California State Parks!), we are currently equipping our rangers with tools and training to try out distance learning at their local sites.

The places we want to deliver programs from don’t often have the connectivity needed to do so, and are unique natural or cultural heritage areas. That means we have to thoughtfully plan, install and manage WiFi networks, or test the use of 4G networks to get us online before we can engage with students to share these special places. It’s our hope that, one day, we’ll have all of California’s state parks available for distance learning and to provide digital access for K-12 students.


What can students learn about California through Skype and how can teachers tie your Virtual Field Trips to their curriculum?


Our park rangers help introduce California State Park resources and stories to thousands of students every year. The topics we cover help educators in teaching specific content in the context of that State Park. Two popular programs include our kelp forest ecology program, which is delivered by a ranger on a kayak gliding above the kelp forest at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, near Monterey, and our Angel Island Immigration Station program, delivered from Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Angel Island Immigration Station, also known as the Ellis Island of the West, is home to stories about the struggles immigrants faced coming to America during the first part of the 20th century.


Could you share some anecdotes or “aha” moments from your connections with classrooms?


PORTS is a longstanding and award-winning program that will have engaged with close over 500,000 students this year, ever since we started delivering live programs back in 2005. Our programs are not intended to be webcast or captured for later viewing. Creating live, authentic and meaningful on-off presentations that can differentiate learning for students is at the core of what we do. Presenting our content to one class period at a time, to half a million students by the end of this year, is something to be proud of.

Our rangers shared a few highlights of using Skype in the Classroom to engage students: Our ranger on the kayak said, “Whether the students are marveling at the movement of a sea snail on a kelp blade, or being nature detectives, figuring out the connection between sea otters and giant kelp, the level of student engagement is high!”

A 4th grade teacher from Canada said our Crystal Cove State Park Tidepool Ecology program was helping his students learn how they play an important role in keeping our entire planet clean and healthy, even while living far from the ocean.

And our Hearst Castle guide has been collaborating with classrooms, who are near to this national treasure, to help prepare students for an in-person visit to the park. According to one teacher, “The students were able to look past the shiny things and grasp the concepts presented when we were there. They were more engaged and had many more ‘aha’ moments.”

The value of distance learning using Skype in the Classroom manifests in multiple ways for California State Parks. Students who may never visit one of our sites as a part of their K-12 experience can gain access to our sites, and those who do visit come prepared and ready to learn more as soon as they step off the bus. It’s a phenomenal use of technology and one that showcases the true potential of online collaboration between parks and K-12 schools around the globe.


How you can get involved with your classroom:


  1. Make a promise to take care of the Earth as a class.
  2. Share your promise on Twitter with @SkypeClassroom and #Skype2Learn.
  3. Connect with a class or take a virtual field trip to share your promise and challenge them to share theirs!


Take a glimpse at some of the available Virtual Field Trips.

Additionally, in honor of this celebration, the Skype in the Classroom team has launched an amazing OneNote notebook today with Earth Day resources and ideas on how to incorporate Skype in your classroom. You can download it for free today.

And finally, don’t forget to download our Earth Day certificates and give your students a real sense of achievement.

Because of Skype, students can experience the magic of Hearst Castle, its art and architecture, in classrooms across the world! 

– Erin Gates, Interpretive Ranger at Hearst Castle State Monument

On a kayak in the Pacific Ocean is an excellent way to learn and experience the biodiverse world of the kelp forest! Using Skype to connect with students from around the world provides a direct live interaction, in an ecosystem not many people ever get to see.”

– Daniel Williford, Interpretive Ranger at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Skype has allowed students from all over the world a glimpse into the extraordinary stories of immigration through Angel Island Immigration Station. Allowing visual access to the place – the writings on the walls – only strengthens the importance and relevance of these powerful accounts of struggle, perseverance and determination for new opportunities and better futures in America. 

Ben Fenkell, PORTS Program Coordinator

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