Where there’s an internet connection, there’s a way to share nature engagement.
By Christine Chessler-Stull, Volunteer and Membership Coordinator
Matthaei-Nichols docents

Matthaei-Nichols docents pose for a group photo in mid-February 2020 about a month prior to the COVID closure. Would-be docents go through a 9-week training early in the year. The 2020 docent team was in its final weeks of training when the pandemic hit.

As I write, we have been closed to the public for 212 days. The pandemic has resulted in many missed events and experiences at Matthaei-Nichols, but it also has allowed our volunteers to create and collaborate like never before! 
While most of our volunteer programs have been on hold for the last eight months, a group of nine volunteer docents continue to work remotely. And they’ve produced some fantastic virtual content. Since April, this group of volunteers led by Liz Glynn, Matthaei-Nichols youth education coordinator, have put in 300 hours of effort! 
A school field trip with students and docents in teh conservatory at Matthaei

Docent Kathy Friedrichs, rear left, conducts a tour for schoolchildren in the conservatory at Matthaei. While nothing can completely replace the experience of a live tour, our video tours provide an entertaining and informative opportunity for learning, all packed into a easy-to-watch three- to four-minute video.

Videos Open a Virtual Gateway
We know videos can’t fully replace the experience of walking our trails on a sunny fall morning or exploring the smells and sights of our conservatory. Even so, they have made these spaces accessible no matter where our audience lives. With many schools hosting an online semester or hybrid learning, we wanted to be ready with our own virtual materials.
Kathy Wirstrom, volunteer docent for 12 years and a retired teacher with 32 years of experience, has been instrumental in creating videos during our closure. “I hope that families will see these videos as a sort of gateway to Matthaei, introducing them to parts of the property they might not have experienced before and encouraging them to explore,” said Wirstrom about what she hopes folks can gain from our virtual experiences this fall. 
“I couldn’t stand the thought of not being involved with the Arb and Gardens in some way,” Wirstrom added. “Being a docent is a very important part of who I am. It was interesting to brainstorm with Liz Glynn and the other docents on ways to engage with our public while Matthaei and the schools are closed. I had some experience a few years ago in helping to create a virtual tour of the conservatory, so I thought we might be able to do something similar outdoors.” Wirstrom and fellow docent volunteer, Greg Nowak, were able to accomplish just that this summer.

In this video, Matthaei-Nichols docent Kathy Wirstrom explains what makes the tulip tree such an amazing plant.

From IRL to URL
Although some docent volunteers had experience with virtual engagement prior to the pandemic, most found the sudden shift from hands-on activities to a new virtual experience to be the biggest learning curve. 
Some docents, like Mary Fowler, were familiar with virtual learning but still found certain aspects of it—for example shifting activities like plant ID to a virtual format and researching the best methods to share this type of information—to be a new process. Fowler has been a volunteer for six years and is a new docent of the 2020 class.
Student in Wolverine Pathways program at Matthaei

In real life, Liz Glynn (in light-blue shirt, bottom-center) leads a 2019 field trip to Fleming Creek at Matthaei for students participating in the Wolverine Pathways program. Students are invited to get into the creek to collect samples for examination and to determine the health of the waterway. While Matthaei-Nichols has remained closed this year due to the pandemic, docents continue to film videos to fill in the learning gaps. Not only are videos effective learning tools, they are also easily saved and shared for future reference in a virtual learning library on our YouTube channel.

Follow us on YouTube

We continue to add new videos on our YouTube channel regularly. Click on this button to check out the Matthaei-Nichols YouTube!
Crystal Keller, volunteer docent for three years, shared a similar sentiment, “I miss the interaction with the students and feedback I receive to assess my effectiveness. I had not realized how much I enjoyed collaborating with and working with my fellow docents, and I miss all the Matthaei-Nichols staff and volunteers very much.”
Program Pivots During a Pandemic Year 
When we closed to the public in mid-March we were in the very last week of the immersive 9-week training period for our new volunteer docent class. Excitement was building for the next phase—field trip shadowing—which of course was put on hold due to school closures this spring. Liz Glynn had to pivot quickly during the busiest time for field trips and programming. In terms of numbers, it meant at least 2,500 students wouldn’t be able to participate in a field trip with us as usual. 
It was, and still is, a tremendous emotional and mental challenge. And it’s a significant disappointment for many people including docents, teachers, kids, and parents,” Glynn lamented. “We had to quickly translate what we do in the natural world to the digital world, encouraging families to do nature-based activities at home, in their yard or neighborhood.” 
Yet what’s come out of this is a can-do spirit among staff and volunteers, she adds. “I feel incredibly fortunate that a group of docents were willing to climb that steep learning curve with me and that I get to meet with them via Zoom, and, safely of course, in person when we work on the videos.” 
DIY Nature-Based Activities also Part of the Offerings
With that group, Glynn has been able to create resources for teachers and families to experience nature at home. “I’ve heard from parents that these resources and activities need to be less like school and more like fun. During a day of classroom curriculum (virtual) education at home, parents say they and their kids need breaks. My hope is that these activities encourage everyone to get outside, explore their neighborhood and yard, grow something, and connect plants and ecosystems to everyday experiences like the seeds in your apple or the birds eating the insects in your yard.”
For a similar experience, our Gaffield Children’s Garden Coordinator, Lee Smith Bravender, has created DIY nature play activities that can be curated and experienced at home. 
DIY nature activities
The silver lining of the pandemic and our resulting temporary closure have often been challenging to see. However, watching our staff and remote volunteers adapt so quickly to virtual engagement, rise to the challenges and learn new skills, and create so many new experiences has been incredible to witness and be involved in directly as a program coordinator. 
Glynn closed our discussion on a similar positive perspective, “I believe difficult circumstances can push new growth and change. We’ve learned a lot in this time and we’ll learn lots more. It’s also making us all more focused on the beauty we have around us and has prompted us to work more closely together to represent that beauty to the public. More virtual content and digital engagement can also provide beauty and joy to people who can’t get outside for a number of reasons.”

There are so many ways to engage with us virtually.

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