Lakeside Lab Bringing Nature Home

The Iowa Lakeside Laboratory offers students a chance to learn about nature in nature through full-immersion, field-oriented courses. However, this experiential learning - one of the Lakeside Lab’s core features - has been put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic. With schools canceling classes and families staying home, Lakeside Lab staff have created a host of online resources for students of all ages to learn about nature at home.

“One of the things we thought about when social distancing measures were put in place was how to give students resources to learn about science and nature without them being here,” said Dr. Mary Skopec, executive director of the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory. “The online resources we’re creating encourage kids and adults to go outside and learn about the natural world.”

Lakeside Lab creates resources geared toward three different audiences. Its Lakeside Facebook Friday Live is a live, interactive event intended for general, older audiences and has included a tour of the Spirit Lake Fish Hatchery. Lakeside Science Minutes, aimed at middle and high school students, includes audio interviews with scientists about their research in Iowa and across the globe. Topics include water quality research, wildlife management and Earth sciences, among others.

“These are things teachers can utilize to flavor their teachings,” Dr. Skopec said. “We’ve gotten good feedback from both students and teachers. Since it’s live, that feedback is in real time and we can have a back-and-forth dialog with them.”

The Daily Lakeside Nature Challenge is a 3-5 minute video series aimed at elementary students that encourages kids to observe their natural surroundings and perform experiments. Topics include how to make a wind sock, how soap cleans your hands or how to build a bird feeder. The latest topic, finding your “sit spot,” - a place to sit quietly and observe the natural world around you - can be especially beneficial to kids and parents during times of uncertainty.

“During the pandemic, there’s a lot of scary information coming at us, seemingly at all times,” Dr. Skopec said. “Having that spot and that time to sit and observe nature can be very beneficial. We encourage students to think about their observational skills and to find a quiet spot where they can be in nature and away from everything else.”

The notion that people need to unplug and be present in the moment is nothing new, but growing research suggests spending more time in natural environments, like near lakes and rivers or forests, offers numerous health benefits to adults and children, alike. Simply spending time outdoors can improve mood and increase good health and wellbeing.

“When I was a kid, my parents had these lilac bushes,” Dr. Skopec said. “I would sit in those bushes and watch the world go around me. Kids need unstructured time like that where they can just sit and watch and wonder about bugs and birds and nature. Those are powerful experiences.”

Though using screen time to build an appreciation of science and nature in kids can seem counterproductive, Lakeside Lab resources help students bridge the gap between the screen and the natural world.

“We’re taking this as an opportunity to reach a wider audience,” Dr. Skopec said. “The students can start with us virtually and come see Lakeside Lab’s wonderful and diverse natural areas when they’re able.”