Science and Teaching for Field Instructors

Tale from the Field: Professional Learning at Scale

Mass Audubon is a nature conservation nonprofit with 20 nature centers throughout Massachusetts. They also have 75 permanent education staff and hire nearly 500 seasonal educators per year. BEETLES interviewed Education Coordinator Melissa Hansen about the challenges and opportunities that come with working with instructors across multiple sites, and how Mass Audubon is building a professional learning system to support high-quality teaching and learning across their state.

BEETLES: Tell us a bit about Mass Audubon. 

Melissa Hansen: Mass Audubon protects 38,000 acres of land throughout Massachusetts. As Massachusetts’ largest nature conservation nonprofit, we welcome more than a half million visitors a year to our wildlife sanctuaries and 20 nature centers.

Throughout the year, we offer school programs that take place in our nature centers, at schools, or in our communities. We also offer teacher professional development workshops focused on taking science teaching and learning outside. 58% of Massachusetts cities and towns are represented in Mass Audubon’s school programs. Mass Audubon also runs summer camps across many of our sites.

Mass Audubon has team of nearly 300 staff working in our wildlife sanctuaries, conservation science, advocacy, land protection, and administrative departments. Of these 300 permanent staff, we have 75 full-time, community-based environmental educators across our 20 nature centers. To run our summer camps, we hire and onboard over 300 camp counselors to design and offer nature camp to nearly 12,000 campers. During the school year, we also work with a team of over 200 part-time seasonal educators who offer programs to K-12 students in partnership with full time educators at our nature centers.

BEETLES: What are some of the challenges in working across sites with such a large staff? How do you plan to use BEETLES to reach your goals as an organization? How has your approach to working with your staff shifted over time?

Melissa: While our team of educators is  part of one organization– Mass Audubon—each sanctuary has its own micro-culture, based on the communities it serves, available habitats to explore, and the interests and strengths of the staff. We are currently developing an onboarding and ongoing professional development program for our team of educators across the state to establish best practices for designing and teaching environmental education programs. For us, BEETLES is a core component in this program, focusing on essential instructional practices and effective program and lesson design.

Over the years, we have a few different approaches to integrating the BEETLES Professional Learning Sessions and student activities. A Mass Audubon team attended a BEETLES Leadership Institute in 2014, and initially, they began by offering two statewide trainings per year focused on BEETLES. All education staff were highly encouraged to attend. Content was rotated so that there would be opportunities for both new staff and longer-term employees. Since 2014, one of the leaders who attended the BEETLES Institute left to work at another organization, and the other leader’s responsibilities shifted.

Mass Audubon got another chance to attend a BEETLES Leadership Institute. Erin Kelley, Education Manager at Mass Audubon’s Boston Nature Center and I (Melissa Hansen, education coordinator) attended an Institute in December 2017. Initially, we followed the 2 statewide trainings per year model and on training days we focused on trying to share professional learning sessions. We did one session for everyone in the morning, then offered a choice in the second half of the day. For example, everyone would attend Making Observations in the morning, then get to choose either Nature and Practices of Science or Field Journaling with Students for the afternoon.

Inspired by the Institute, we wanted to brainstorm some more effective ways of disseminating BEETLES. We met with the statewide education director to share our experience and ideas and to create a different model and shared vision together. We wanted to extend the reach of BEETLES trainings beyond just staff who worked with school programs, and to showcase how important it was that pedagogy and practice across Mass Audubon encompass what we can learn from BEETLES. We realized we needed to change how BEETLES was thought of: from something  only for school program staff to something integral for all teaching and learning and all instructional staff. 

One step we took was to form a Mass Audubon BEETLES Instructional Team, formed from staff who were enthusiastic after the first few sessions and other educators who had attended multiple BEETLES trainings. Led by the statewide education director and myself, this 8-10 person team is now facilitating over 8 sessions on 4 days across the state. These sessions will feature professional learning sessions and student activities. Depending on availability, experience, and interest, there can be 1-3 people instructing on a given date. We are also developing a shared calendar of site-based BEETLES trainings so we can make trainings even more accessible to part-time and seasonal staff throughout the year. Not only does this ensure that more of our teaching staff can access BEETLES, it also creates more opportunities for building communities of practice across the Mass Audubon network of nature centers. Finally, we have been integrating selected BEETLES activities into our Summer Camp Field School, attended by all of our new summer camp counselors!

Now, all staff, including education managers, coordinators and full-time teacher naturalists, and leaders, are highly encouraged to participate in multiple, foundational BEETLES trainings each year (whereas before, only permanent educational staff were encouraged to attend). Most education supervisors elect to include seasonal teaching staff in these trainings while others offer the BEETLES modules at their site themselves to their teaching staff once they build their comfort and skills in facilitating BEETLES.

We also shifted the way we advertised these sessions in advance. Before, BEETLES Professional Learning Sessions were often just listed as “BEETLES” instead of by a session title, so people didn’t realize the scope and depth of what was available to them, and weren’t aware of why they should attend more than one session.

In the future, we plan to use in-house marketing strategies, such as showing short videos during our annual state-wide meeting in December. We want to do this to increase education staff understanding of the value BEETLES can offer their teaching practice, to better describe the training session content to appeal to staff “who already did a BEETLES training,” and to continue to show that these approaches are important for all educators, not just school programs staff.

BEETLES: Which BEETLES Professional Learning Sessions will you focus on? Will you do a consistent order of sessions? 

Melissa: We identified four professional learning sessions that we marked as foundational sessions because they can be applied most readily to a wide range of audiences and ages: Making Observations, Teaching & Learning, Questioning Strategies, and Constructing Understanding. Our goal is for staff to attend the 4 foundational PLSs, then to attend others based on applicability to their specific education programs and audiences. As part of our annual professional development planning, we will rotate the foundational sessions with the other PLSs and a variety of student activities each year. This should maximize opportunities for growth over several years among staff whether they are new or experienced. As of now, our plan is to offer 2 of the foundational 4 PL sessions during the Sept 2019- June 2020 training year. Next year we will have the other two. During the year, we will also round out trainings with other ProfessionalLearning Sessions that may appeal to staff, along with 2 student activities. We will discuss in June 2020 how it worked and make decision on what is most effective and modify as needed.

BEETLES: What about the location of these trainings? How will you reach different sites and different instructors? Are program leaders teaching Professional Learning Sessions at their own sites, or traveling to others?

Melissa: BEETLES trainings are strategically offered at different locations. Some will be based in centralized areas of the state that are most accessible to staff, while some will be based in a location where there may be a unique need, e.g. new hires, an ecological benefit (for example at a coastal sanctuary), etc. Because our small state is long and skinny, it can be hard for the sanctuaries at the extremes to get to the centralized trainings. Therefore, we will also have members of our BEETLES Instructional Team travel to do PLSs or student activities customized to the request or needs of the sanctuary.

Because there can be a lot of seasonal staff turnover, we encourage any program leaders that are teaching a BEETLES Professional Learning Session at their site for their staff, to notify nearby Mass Audubon sanctuaries through a shared calendar. Several of us have done this successfully. Erin has also rounded out attendance by extending invitations to other local education providers in the Boston area, and in one instance it led to staff from the Museum of Fine Arts attending a nature journaling session.

BEETLES: What are your other goals related to teaching and learning at your sites? How do you plan to use BEETLES to reach common outcomes for students? 

Melissa: Mass Audubon has put a lot of energy and intention into high impact program areas which have the most contact hours with participants, such as camps, nature preschools, and youth climate summits. More recently, the education department has been aiming for there to be the same level of quality of experience with school programming regardless of where it occurs and what nature center facilitates it. This is where staff training in BEETLES can be most effective in quality assurance for student-centric learning techniques and science skills practices. We have determined that our best lever in ensuring that our school programs are successful is to focus on high quality instruction.

In the near future, each site will be held accountable to implementing BEETLES practices in our school field trip programs—these are programs where students directly explore nature to build understanding in line with the state life and earth science frameworks. The Education Department is currently working on a set of school field trip evaluation tools that will aim to capture how effectively staff use BEETLES in their programs. One tool asks staff to self-reflect immediately after a program on how frequently they used specific techniques, and the school teacher evaluation will ask similar questions. It covers prompting students to provide evidence, asking students to elaborate, connecting to students’ prior knowledge, and more. Since we facilitate field trips with ages pre-school through high school, we expect the extent to which certain techniques are used will vary based on appropriateness.


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