New Brunswick Virtual (And Actual) Field Trips

PENNINGTON, NJ (Hopewell Township) – Using virtual field trips, the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association is helping New Brunswick students learn about threats to clean water, management of polluted stormwater runoff and the benefits of healthy ecosystems.

This innovative approach helps schools cope with the conflicting demands of teaching rigorous new science standards in an era of dwindling school budgets.

From the school’s auditorium, about 400 six graders at the New Brunswick Middle School recently watched aerial views of the Watershed’s LEED-Platinum building and 930-acre reserve from a flying drone. Transmitting live, a Watershed naturalist described how a green roof soaks up rainwater and a second roof’s shape funnels water to a rain garden below.

New Brunswick teacher Dr. Jessica Monaghan said the virtual field trips invite her students to engage in the world as scientists. The virtual outings expose her students to new and unfamiliar phenomena, so vastly different from their New Brunswick communities. Most importantly, the field trips provide an immediacy, a connection that grounds and enlivens the concepts.

It helps them make explicit connections from the new terms to actual things, and serves as a reference point all teachers can use in their classrooms,” she said.

On May 16, a core group of about 40 students – acting as ambassadors for their sixth-grade classes – visited the Watershed in person.

They saw how the garden captures stormwater and minimizes pollution, explored compost, and visited the pond to see how clean water makes for a healthy habitat for frogs, red-wing blackbirds, dragon flies and other critters.

Supported by a grant from Johnson & Johnson, the virtual field trips breathe life into science beyond text books, abstract concepts and memorized facts. The New Brunswick-based company tapped the Watershed for its expertise on helping local schools teach inquiry based science.

The virtual outreach also extends the range of the Watershed’s naturalists and science experts far beyond their headquarters in Hopewell Township (Mercer County).

“Schools are excited about this high-tech approach for teaching science and we expect demand for virtual field trips will grow,” said Jim Waltman, Executive Director of the Watershed. “We’re eager to share our expertise and showcase the Watershed’s living laboratory.”

Launched in the fall of 2016, the virtual field trips saved the school the expense of multiple field trips, booking various buses and other logistics required for out-of-class activities. In April 2017, a second group of New Brunswick Middle School six graders returned to the Watershed to study human impacts on the environment.

“While we value the immersive experience of our natural, outdoor classroom, doing this for 400 students was problematic,” said Jeff Hoagland, Education Director at the Watershed. “So, the virtual field trips become the way to reach this audience.”

Several assemblies were held for the large, sixth grade class in the school’s auditorium. Hoagland did an initial presentation about water conservation and then Senior Naturalist Allison Jackson was Skyped in, showcasing features of the buildings and grounds, while interacting live with students.

“The assembly is a great jumping off point to getting their minds in the right direction,” said Dr. Monaghan, who hopes to do more virtual field trips with the Watershed. “At the end, the students understood how to conserve water with toilets, collect rain water, and ensure that water goes to the right place so the plants and animals survive. They are starting to open their eyes that the amount of fresh water they are using is excessive.”

Meegan G. Adames, supervisor of science for K-12 at the New Brunswick Public Schools, said, “Our collaboration with The Watershed has been transformational. Students are able to see concepts taught in class applied in real life. Students also get a broader view of what scientists do and how many people are working for the conservation of our Earth.”

Hoagland said the visiting students will return to their school with a challenge: share what they’ve learned firsthand with all their sixth grade classmates and devise plans to address energy, water or material waste issues at their school. Ideas could range from solar panels to rain gardens.

“Our goal is to help students understand and enjoy science and learn how to solve real-world problems,” Hoagland said.