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Extension is expanding its online education and resources to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions.

Distance learning takes flight with U of M tools for science teachers

November 18, 2020
Close-up head shot of Maxime, a bald eagle
Maxime is a bald eagle that came to the U's Raptor Center in 1999 with injuries and lead poisoning.

Kathy Kneeland, a high school science teacher with Robbinsdale Area Schools, was feeling anxious about distance learning for the fall of 2020. Then she met Maxime, a bald eagle from the University of Minnesota Raptor Center. An Extension curriculum connected the dots.

Maxime was only the beginning. Education raptors will visit thousands of students virtually this school year. Kneeland also has other new tools and the University will guide her all year, helping her spark excitement even when dark winter days arrive.

The University’s Outdoor Investigations in the STEM Classroom (OISC) program, with funding from the Cargill Foundation, supports teachers who work with low-income students to provide equitable access to STEM opportunities. Teachers get the tools they need to engage students in the process of scientific inquiry and critical thinking. Students then develop and conduct their own outdoor scientific investigation.

University of Minnesota Extension and the Raptor Center brought together 6th- through 12th-grade science teachers like Kneeland from nine metro school districts for three days of virtual workshops, integrating the online Raptor Lab and Outdoor Investigator curriculum into classrooms that moved online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Connecting to the natural world

Kathy Kneeland in her office. She is smiling at the camera.
Kathy Kneeland in her distance learning office

“It is harder to make personal connections with students in distance learning," says Kneeland. “I am really looking forward to using Outdoor Investigator with my students because it gives them the opportunity to choose a topic to study, a chance to experience nature and the opportunity to build critical thinking skills that they can use beyond my classes.”

In a time when many students are primarily learning on screens, this program gives educators a way to encourage getting outside and it aligns with Minnesota and Next Generation science standards.

Ecology fair on for January

Sharing and reflecting on experiences is part of what makes learning meaningful and lasting. Extension and The Raptor Center are preparing for the 24th annual Ecology Science Fair.

The Jan. 30, 2021 event will provide a forum for elementary, middle school and high school students to present their research, as well as participate in fun ecology-focused breakout sessions.

This year’s fair will be held virtually as the Ecology Science eFair. Students conduct independent investigations at school, a local park or at home. They share their findings with others, answering interview questions from a scientist.

female scientist looks over project poster boards with a clipboard in hand
Dorah Mwangola, a research assistant in the U of M CFANS Department of Entomology, judged projects at the 2020 Ecology Science Fair. Scientists will interview participants online in 2021.

Timeline: How Outdoor Investigations in the STEM Classroom started

laptop set up in a kitchen shows the educators and Maxime the bald eagle
Allison Gurney, a Minneapolis Public Schools teacher participating in OISC, is joined by her daughters as they learn more about raptors with a visit from Maxime and Mike Billington, program manager of OISC.


Andrea Lorek Strauss, Extension educator, develops the Driven to Discover curriculum that engages youth in citizen science explorations and independent scientific investigations. Simultaneously, Mike Billington, Raptor Center education program manager, develops Raptor Lab curriculum that connects classrooms with real wildlife rehabilitation and research.


Strauss and Billington meet and discover how similar each program's goals are and chart a plan to incorporate Driven to Discover investigations curriculum into an expansion of the Raptor Lab.


Rob Blair, Extension specialist in Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, leads an expansion of the program called "Driven to Discover" that coaches teachers to engage students in conducting citizen science-based independent investigations that align with Minnesota and Next Generation science standards.


Billington and Strauss develop the Outdoor Investigations online learning module and train a team to hold workshops for teachers around the state.


Drawing assets from both the Driven to Discover and Raptor Lab projects, the Outdoor Investigations in the STEM Classroom collaboration is born. OISC staff Lisa Curtis and Jen Schultz gear up to host teacher workshops and classroom visits. 


The COVID-19 pandemic shifts schools online. OISC, featuring the already road-tested online modules, prepares teachers working with low-income students to bring their science classrooms online with University ecology tools.

“Since the basic principles of scientific investigation are the same no matter the subject, it was an easy marriage of content and process,” says Strauss. “Years of innovation and hard work on both our parts made us ready to grab hold of the opportunity.”

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