The past year has undoubtedly been a difficult one for those who have been stuck inside because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Solano County Office of Education (SCOE) has come up with a way to get people outside while also learning about the different native wildlife in existence.
SCOE launched its first Outdoor Explorer Quest program in Lagoon Valley Park, allowing young and old alike an opportunity to become nature explorers, with smartphones and QR readers in hand, as they learn more about the different plants and animals that inhabit the park, from buckeyes to birds to beavers.
Jennifer Leonard — SCOE’s assistant superintendent of communications, community engagement and emergency management — said staff wanted to create an opportunity for students to go outside, spend time with family and hopefully spark an interest in nature.
“It was really about figuring out how to meet families where they’re at and engage in some type 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 gather footage. They also collaborated with subject matter experts at Solano Land Trust and Solano Resource Conservation to build a curriculum regarding the various local flora and fauna.
“Ernie and I had to do a lot of learning to put this contest together, so to be able to collaborate with other organizations in the county to have subject matter experts and to be able to use the land, that’s really huge,” she said. “We can enhance learning experience for teachers and for students, and we can pull resources and amplify all the great things that are already happening.”
The way it works is simple. On the program’s page on the SCOE website, people can download a Questcache map or access a Google Map of Lagoon Valley with different markers on where participants can find signposts with QR codes scattered throughout the park in areas where one might expect to find different kinds of plants or animals.
When participants visit the park and find the signposts, they can use a QR reader and receive links to pages with 90-second videos on specific wildlife narrated by Holly. The various animals featured include red-shouldered hawks, Columbian black-tailed deer, turkey vultures, beavers, squirrels, Canada geese and great blue herons. Plantlife includes California buckeyes, wavy-leafed soaproot, valley oak trees and poison oak.
The webpages will also include information such as an animal’s role in the ecosystem, when it migrates, how to identify them, what their tracks look like and additional resources for conservation and other topics.
While trying to find Questcache sites, participants may come across other animals at 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’s all kinds of things students can experience,” Leonard said.
The map has already received more than 600 views, Leonard said. Since SCOE has only done a little bit of social media promotion, she believes a lot of them are from people simply stumbling across it while visiting the park.
“I think most people are finding it from the signage in the park,” she said.
The plan is to expand the program even further. Leonard said SCOE partnered with Solano Land Trust for another course at Rush Ranch for the fall and with Solano RCD for other potential locations.
“The long-term goal is to really create something that can be implemented anywhere in the county with the depth of learning opportunities about plants and animals but also science concepts that are unique to the ecosystems around the county,” she said. “We hope to take this project wider.”
Leonard also said SCOE is working with the city of Vacaville on duplicating the entire course for another side of the park to make it more accessible for everyone.
“A lot of these (locations), depending on your fitness level and your mobility, they’re a little more accessible,” she said. “Some of them, though, require a strenuous hike up to the top of the hill.”
Leonard identified the Butcher Road side of the hiking trail as a potential location for a duplicate course that is more low-mobility that the current course.
Leonard also said research is being done to include the recognition of Indigenous uses of land into the pages. One such instance can currently be found on the valley oak page.
“We try to include active uses of acorns and the grinding stone that is actually at Pena Adobe Park in there and recognizing that, for thousands of years, this land was used by Indigenous people before we came along,” she said.
Leonard hopes the course will spark a sense of engagement among families who might not have gotten to explore the outdoors as much over the last 15 months.
“This has been an incredibly difficult year for many families and students,” she said. “We’re hoping to spark a connection, some learning, an opportunity to get outside and explore. Where it goes from there looks different for every student. If it sparks an interest in animals living here or interest in getting outside, that would be ideal, but we’re really just looking for something to engage students in something fun.”
The map for the program and additional information can be accessed at Solanocoe.net/quest.