Like other parts of the education world in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic-forced closure of the United States Botanic Garden (USBG) significantly impacted the USBG Learning and Engagement team. Much of their work consisted of connecting people with plants through hundreds of in-person educational programs and school field trips throughout the year. Education is a core part of the USBG, with historic notes from the 1800s showing the USBG has offered educational lectures and programs since its earliest days as a public garden. The team knew they had to rethink their educational approach to continue their work while also keeping everyone safe.

The Learning and Engagement team has embraced new technology and instructional approaches to successfully offer more than 200 programs online, engaging more than 17,500 participants from all 50 states and 27 countries. The team has also developed live virtual field trips for schools, engaging more than 4,000 students from throughout the D.C. area and from states ranging from Florida to Maine. Most of the student participants have been from underserved communities.

Lee Coykendall is the senior education specialist at the USBG, having worked as part of the education team for 20 years. “My first thought was ‘I am a hands-on plant science teacher. How do I do hands-on education right now?!’,” said Coykendall. “I knew technology could help, but I didn’t know what to do or how. I was a dinosaur of technology back then.”

Over the past two years, all of the USBG Learning and Engagement team have banded together to support each other as they tested new technological tools and new teaching methods.

Amy Bolton, Learning and Engagement manager, had already envisioned the team offering online programming at some point in the future. “This forced that future plan to come to the forefront,” said Bolton. “I tried to put that mantra of ‘Don’t let a crisis go to waste.’ into action. We needed new technology and new methods for engagement. There was a sense of urgency, but with the whole country thrown into this new situation, there was a general feeling of forgiveness and acceptance that allowed us to offer programs while we built our skills and our tools.”

To build out online programming, the education team tapped into their extensive experience with learning methodologies. But the switch to online learning required a different approach and a different measure of what online learning success could be. It was an opportunity to look within the team to identify skills each person could bring to this new challenge, and also determine where there were opportunities for new growth and learning.

“I wanted our team to be successful,” said Bolton. “ I knew it was important to create a trusting, supportive environment where everyone was comfortable testing out ideas, having things go wrong, and then talking about what worked and what didn’t. We experimented with purpose. I knew if we could do that, everyone’s confidence and skills would build over time.” 

So in that spirit, the team got to work researching and testing online tools and platforms to enable them to offer programs online. Two employees found and enrolled in a university program specializing in online education design and development. Some of the first programs offered online were lectures that had already been planned that spring. “A single person speaking and presenting photos and information through a slide deck was a relatively easy way for us to flip to online instruction while we worked to create more complex programs,” said Libby Rhoads, the Learning and Engagement supervisor who has helped manage many of the USBG’s on-site programs for years.

After that, it was more try-and-learn. “We knew we could get one of our USBG Horticulture colleagues online with some plants using a laptop with a built-in camera. Let’s just do it and see how it goes,” said Grace Anderson, science education specialist. “The camera was looking a bit up her nose, the lighting changed during the program causing some issues seeing what she was doing with plants, we couldn’t zoom in…. There were challenges that we knew and challenges that we didn’t know until we tried. And so we tried and took lots of notes, and we learned.”

In addition to figuring out what software worked best, the team realized they needed better hardware and some new processes for how to make it all work.


A Non-Traditional Studio

Month after month, the team continued offering programs and testing new tools like different cameras, microphones, and lighting equipment. Broadcasting an online program from the Conservatory offered a beautiful, plant-filled visual space to work, but it also presented a variety of challenges. The team faced hurdles ranging from no internet connection and strong, overhead light to misters that would turn on frequently, myriad audio challenges, and more. 

To spotlight the challenges and learn together, the team instituted meetings after each of those first online programs. These meetings later developed into a biweekly online producer’s meeting in which issues were brought forward to discuss and troubleshoot. 

Over time, the team’s tools evolved to address the variety of needs for offering programs in a greenhouse. Today, a Learning and Engagement team member will act as an on-site producer for an online program, setting up with time-honed precision a combination of laptop and camera for a good viewing angle, an umbrella to filter the strong overhead light, reflectors and lights to brighten the presenter’s face and the plants, and a long ethernet cable from a separate room where there is a port. 

Their research and hard work to get the technological tools right have paid off. In a matter of minutes, a greenhouse space can be made ready to present an online program about plants to hundreds of participants from around the world. 


Planning for Quality

“Once we had tech tools that worked well, we were able to dive into developing, designing, and offering quality programs,” said Bolton.  “One of Learning and Engagement’s goals is to offer quality programs – so we had to ask ourselves ‘What is quality? How do we define it?’” The entire team worked under the leadership of education specialists Emily Hestness and Maura Nelson who had experience in creating, building, and assessing methodologies, and also sought input from the entire Garden. 

Through several iterations, the team created UnPACK, the acronym that describes quality programs. Producers use UnPACK to guide program development and evaluation by ensuring programs use the Unique (Un) assets of the Garden, are thoughtfully Planned (P), provide Access (A) to everyone, are Centered (C) on the audience needs and interests, and present the expertise of Knowledge-based (K) people in their field.   

“We needed new processes for online programs, especially since many of our programs are recorded and live on after the singular offering of the program,” said Rhoads. The team has created a suite of tools to help in their work – an online program proposal form, tech rehearsals with presenters, a marketing form, production documents, and an online survey for participants to receive afterward. 

Standardizing program planning and production streamlined the process and created a consistent format for all the programs. Every program draws from a shared resource so that the producer has access to pertinent information, a script for program introduction and exit, a statement that places the program in a positive, safe environment for discourse, pre-planned answers to possible questions, and links to USBG webpages and social media. Standardized orientation slides were created to quickly communicate to program attendees the important features of the program platform such as chat and settings. 

Online programming at the USBG has reached a state of high capability and quality, with the team offering live online programs that range from plant care demonstrations and floral workshops to corpse flower botany and conservation programs, cooking demos, and more.


Unique School Challenges

Finding new ways to fulfill educational programming for schools proved to be a particular challenge. In the beginning of the pandemic, teachers were learning their own online systems and weren’t ready to work with other organizations. Then local teachers began asking for virtual field trips, but each teacher had a different vision for what that would be.

The team worked over several months to develop a new educational online field trip that brought a unique aspect of the Garden to the classroom and aligned with state and national education standards. The field trips needed to accommodate different technology use across classrooms and a wide variety of teacher comfort with technology. The team sought out teachers to collaborate with during the development process who would pilot programs in their classrooms and review content. With each pilot, the team took the experience and participants’ feedback to hone and refine the content.

“I knew one of our top priorities had to be student engagement,” said Coykendall. “Schools and teachers have turned to the USBG for plant science programs that focus on student engagement on-site. But I’m not David Attenborough to do engaging pre-recorded courses. We do, however, have a team that’s really good at live student engagement and has a passion for plants, so we realized live classes were the path forward for us.”

The team found an online tool that allows students to engage directly with virtual field trip content and USBG educators. More than just a slide show and chat, it is a fully engaging experience that can be accomplished with a direct link to students via individual devices or through projection into a classroom via the teacher.

After multiple rounds of piloting and iteration, today teachers can choose from three Think Like a Botanist virtual field trip options that cover topics such as plant adaptation, plant form and function, and energy and matter for grades 3, 4, and 5.

When asked about her previous dinosaur comment, Coykendall said “Now there are days when I feel like I am Ms. Technology! Over the course of one day, I might be invited into one classroom via Zoom, then another via Microsoft Teams, then another via a third platform. I feel comfortable with using the technology we have found to join teachers and classes and fulfill our educational mission. I am also comfortable adapting when something new pops up. That’s a good feeling.

“At the end of the day, we want to offer quality plant science education from the U.S. Botanic Garden. And I’m happy to see in responses from both teachers and students that we are achieving that goal. One student said, ‘My grandmother loves plants. I’m so excited to share with her what I learned today about plants!’ That’s pretty special.”


Growing Plants AND Employees

“There is a hidden part of this process  – the positive changes of our employees learning, experiencing, and growing both as individuals and as a team,” said Bolton.

“I’m very proud of how our team has learned about online learning and how it is unique,” said Rhoads. “The team now has a great understanding of the processes and tools for online education success, and it’s a joy to see how we are able to use them to help achieve the USBG’s mission of connecting people and plants through online programs.”

What’s next for this team? They are planning to use new tech tools to offer online horticultural programs from new areas of the USBG, such as the Orchid house and the Kitchen Garden, to showcase additional parts of the USBG plant collection, and are also working toward the ability to offer future hybrid in-person and online programs. This project has also highlighted the opportunity to create online learning for the volunteer corps. Elizabeth Barton, volunteer coordinator, is one of the online program producers and will be able to use this experience to build a suite of learning modules for volunteer training.

This summer, the team will share the school virtual field trips template with other botanic gardens across the country through a workshop presented at a national public gardens conference. They hope the USBG virtual field trip model can help other gardens offer online educational opportunities for schools in their areas. The team will present a second session about lessons learned and best practices in online programs, sharing what they’ve learned and continuing the conversation about excellence and interaction in online learning.

Looking further out, Bolton wants to use the technology to connect with new audiences and audiences that don’t traditionally come to the USBG. “It can expand our opportunities, our audiences, and the creativity we bring to the work we do,” said Bolton. “That’s a great path forward for us. There are lots of opportunities to expand plant science programming online, and our team is now positioned to help this historic 200-year-old garden continue to connect people and plants in new ways in the next two hundred years."