The past year has been undoubtedly a difficult year for those stuck inside because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Solano County Education Office (SCOE) has found a way to get people outside while doing something about others experienced native wildlife exist.
SCOE launched its first Outdoor Explorer Quest program at Lagoon Valley Park, which offers young and old the opportunity to become naturalists with smartphones and QR readers in hand while learning about the different plants and animals that inhabit the park , from horse chestnuts to birds to beavers.
Jennifer Leonard – assistant director of communications, community engagement and emergency management at SCOE – said the staff wanted to give students the opportunity to go outside, spend time with family, and hopefully spark an interest in the outdoors.
“It was really about figuring out how to meet families where they are and get involved in some kind of fun activity and learning in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.
Leonard and SCOE Digital Media Manager Ernie Holly recently visited Lagoon Valley to find wildlife and collect footage. They also worked with subject matter experts from the Solano Land Trust and Solano Resource Conservation to create a curriculum for the various local flora and fauna.
“Ernie and I had to learn a lot to put this competition together so we could work with other organizations in the county, have subject matter experts, and be able to take advantage of the land, that’s really huge,” she said. “We can improve the learning experience for teachers and students, create resources and reinforce all the great things that are already happening.”
The way it works is simple. From the program page on the SCOE website, people can download a Questcache map or access a Google map of the Lagoon Valley with various markings on which attendees can find signposts with QR codes scattered around the park, in areas where you can expect different types of plants or animals.
When attendees visit the park and find the signposts, they can use a QR reader and get links to pages with 90-second videos on specific wildlife, with commentary from Holly. Different animals include red-shouldered falcon, Colombian black-tailed deer, turkey vulture, beaver, squirrel, Canada geese, and great blue heron. The flora includes California horse chestnuts, wavy soapwort, valley oaks, and poison oak.
The web pages also contain information such as an animal’s role in the ecosystem, when it migrates, how to identify it, what its tracks look like, and additional resources for conservation and other topics.
While searching for Questcache locations, participants may encounter other animals in the Lagoon Valley that are not part of the program, such as ducks, turtles, and dragonflies.
Each page also has quest logs where participants can record their discoveries and receive explorer badges for them.
“There are all kinds of things that students can experience,” said Leonard.
The card has already received more than 600 views, said Leonard. Since SCOE did little advertising on social media, she believes a lot of it came from people who simply stumble upon it when visiting the park.
“I think most people can find it from the signs in the park,” she said.
The plan is to expand the program even further. Leonard said SCOE partnered with Solano Land Trust this fall for another course at Rush Ranch and other potential locations with Solano RCD.
“The long-term goal is to really create something that can be implemented anywhere in the district, with the abundance of learning opportunities about plants and animals, but also scientific concepts that are unique to the ecosystems in the district,” she said. “We hope to expand this project further.”
Leonard also said that SCOE is working with the City of Vacaville to duplicate the entire course for another side of the park to make it more accessible to all.
“Many of these (locations) are a bit more accessible depending on your fitness level and mobility,” she said. “However, some of them require a strenuous hike to the top of the hill.”
Leonard identified the Butcher Road side of the trail as a potential location for a double course that is less mobile than the current course.
Leonard also said that research is being carried out to include indigenous land-use recognition on the pages. One such example can currently be found on the Taleiche page.
“We are trying to include the active use of acorns and the grindstone that is actually located in Pena Adobe Park, and we recognize that this land was used by indigenous peoples for thousands of years before we came,” she said.
Leonard hopes the course will instill a sense of engagement among families who may not have been able to explore the outdoors as much in the past 15 months.
“This has been an incredibly difficult year for many families and students,” she said. “We hope to create a connection, to learn something, an opportunity to go outside and explore. Where it goes then looks different for each student. If it arouses an interest in the animals that live here or in being outside, that would be ideal, but we’re really just looking for something that encourages the students to do something fun. “
The map of the program and further information can be found at Solanocoe.net/quest.