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Venturing outdoors, indoors

By Wendy Li

zoom grid screenshot of students being led through virtual STEM lesson
Students being virtually led through a chromatography water experiment. Photo courtesy of Venture Outdoors.

There are many activities we have learned to do indoors since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but kayaking isn’t one of them. Venture Outdoors, a nonprofit located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is dedicated to removing barriers and making the outdoors more accessible to all. By connecting youth to outdoor exploration through environmentally-focused STEM learning, Venture Outdoors aims to build a community of environmental stewards who work to protect their local green spaces.

Like the rest of the world, in 2020, the organization faced the challenge of shifting their in-person STEM-based trips to remote STEM learning opportunities. With a $2,500 STEM Action Grant from the Society for Science, Venture Outdoors distributed STEM kits and developed experiments to go along with them for students in the fourth and fifth grades.

The organization’s Youth Outdoor Recreation and Environmental Education project serves inner-city youth from low-income households and reaches 180 to 200 students per year. “In order to continue to address the needs of our children, we pivoted over 50 lesson plans to a virtual and/or remote learning experience, leading to more than 150 live virtual lessons with youth in 2020,” said Lora Zemanek, Venture Outdoors’ Youth Program Manager. The funding Venture Outdoors received as a Society STEM Action grantee allowed the organization to expand their reach, enabling them to hold two kit giveaway events in the last year. They distributed 20 STEM kits and 30 Explorer kits to students in the community, including at South Hills Interfaith Movement, a community learning hub in Bethel Park, and Phillips Recreation Center in Pittsburgh.

table of green backpacks
Venture Outdoors distributed kits to students so they could conduct hands-on STEM activities at home. Photo courtesy of Venture Outdoors.

The Explorer kits contained materials for younger students to learn more about their surrounding environments, while the STEM kits included resources for six different science experiments with accompanying videos. Students who received the STEM kits conducted topical, hands-on activities dealing with water, light, structures in nature, seed planting, air resistance and weather. “One student at Phillips Recreation Center was very excited to receive his kit—he and his younger sister made it only a few steps before looking at all the materials,” Lora told the Society.

These kits and virtual lessons offered through Venture Outdoors are keeping students engaged in STEM despite obstacles brought on by the public health crisis. “Now more than ever, we are facing challenges that require critical and creative solutions. By equipping and challenging students in nature-based STEM experiments, students can increase science literacy and develop problem-solving skills to overcome problems that we now face,” Lora noted. “In addition, connecting students to the outdoors allows them to build engaging relationships with the outdoors, a critical component to their wellbeing.”

STEM kit supplies
An example of the equipment students received. Photo courtesy of Venture Outdoors.

While they hope to be able to host in-person events soon, Venture Outdoors will continue to look for ways to virtually support youth interested in STEM, nurture their creativity and assist them in developing critical thinking skills.

Wendy Li