By Nicole Kallman, Education Manager

2020 has certainly been a year of change and innovation. The pandemic beginning in March put our teachers and students in an unprecedented and challenging situation, working to navigate virtual classrooms amidst the social and economic impact of COVID-19. Despite these challenges, teachers rose to the occasion, working closely with parents to ensure the continued success of our students.

Over the course of the year, the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy has innovated our educational approach to best meet the needs of our teachers and students in continually evolving conditions. In February, before the pandemic began, the Conservancy put on Expedition Days which featured new, standards-based activities that helped teachers meet a 3rd grade life science standards and 4th grade STEM literacy goals. Participants journeyed through the Sonoran Desert, learning about the interconnected ecosystem and how they are a part of it. Over 600 3rd and 4th grade students attended the school field trips and over 400 adults and youth participated in the public Saturday event.

To support teachers and parents when the pandemic first began, the Conservancy developed Conservancy Kids, a weekly video newsletter delivered to teachers and parents. These newsletters encouraged student exploration and inquiry, helping students see the incredible Sonoran Desert around their own homes. Topics range from Sonoran Desert cats that are our house cats more elusive wild relatives to discovering the hidden desert around our urban homes. Partners such as Arizona Project WET and the Metro Phoenix EcoFlora project brought additional excitement and expertise to Conservancy Kids while our staff created engaging educational videos and learning activities.

This fall, the Conservancy has been working on an exciting opportunity for teachers and students early in Spring 2021. While in-person field trips will not be possible, the Conservancy will bring the Sonoran Desert into classes and student homes through Expedition Days Online. Building on the success of Expedition Days this year, the Conservancy is developing an interactive, engaging online unit for students that fosters deeper exploration and personal engagement. Using videos, online games, hands-on activities, and mini creative projects, students will gain a holistic understanding of the Sonoran Desert ecosystem and their place in it. Whether classes are in-person or virtual next spring, students will still get to experience the wonder of the Sonoran Desert.

As we look ahead 2021, the Conservancy will continue to build on past successes, create opportunities to meet the needs of the present, and develop innovations for the future.