Archived Outdoors

Virtual nature: Highlands Biological gets creative with outreach amid pandemic

In lieu of in-person programming, Outreach Education Specialist Patrick Brannon has been busy creating virtual science experiences for students and teachers. WCU photo In lieu of in-person programming, Outreach Education Specialist Patrick Brannon has been busy creating virtual science experiences for students and teachers. WCU photo

By Geoff Cantrell • Contributing writer | In a typical school year, Highlands Biological Station serves nearly 10,000 students through more than 250 programs for 50-plus schools across the mountain region. 

This was not a typical school year. 

With “stay home, stay safe” orders in place and even the great outdoors temporarily shut down during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Western Carolina University’s 23-acre research and learning facility in Highlands had to find new ways to meet the community’s conservation and educational needs.

Now in its 93rd year, the Highlands Biological Station includes the Highlands Nature Center; the William Chambers Coker Laboratory and other teaching labs, classrooms and dormitories; and the Highlands Botanical Garden, which features a network of publicly accessible trails and boardwalks.

“These are trying times. Canceling programs and closing doors is a bitter disappointment, but not unexpected given the uncertainties we’ve all faced,” said Jim Costa, the station’s executive director and professor of evolutionary biology at WCU. “But one lesson from this unprecedented situation is just how adaptable and creative humans are, and how we rise to the occasion.”

Proof of that creativity lies in the many ways staff found to fill the void created by the suspension of workshops, classes and field trips. In the spring, outreach education specialist Patrick Brannon received requests for programs on topics similar to those typically addressed by the station, such as wildflowers, frogs, birds and emerging insects. 

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“During this time, many teachers are struggling to provide activities for their students at home,” Brannon said. “Since I cannot visit them in person, I am, like many others, trying to continue to ‘visit’ their classrooms via the internet.”

Brannon created weekly installments of his newly envisioned “Science Short Shows,” sending them to teachers and also making them available to the public at large on YouTube. Brannon also produced at-home video versions of some of his programs for elementary and middle school students, beginning with segments on frogs and snakes. He published these on YouTube as well. Brannon and staff have had requests from as far away as Raleigh and are continuing to provide virtual programs through 2021.


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Executive Director Jim Costa (left) and his team have worked to adapt their outreach strategies in the face of the pandemic. Education Specialist Paige Engelbrektsson (right) has been busy creating virtual garden tours and learning activities for families to do at home. WCU photos


Paige Engelbrektsson, nature center education specialist for the Highlands Biological Foundation — the station’s nonprofit organization — has been sharing virtual tours of what is currently blooming in the botanical garden and on the grounds. 

“No matter what else is happening in our world at the moment, seasonal changes and beauty still occur in our mountains that are worth sharing,” Engelbrektsson said. “Being able to lead nature tours and allow visitors to experience that through technology is a wonderful opportunity that can be accessed by anyone, anywhere, and it’s important we do what we can to help students stay in touch with the outdoors and encourage at-home learning.”

Along with Winter Gary, communications and events coordinator for the foundation, Engelbrektsson posted ideas for daily fun and learning activities for children on the station’s Facebook page as part of a “Nearby Nature” series.

“Teachers have been extremely appreciative of these resources, which maintain a sense of normality in their lesson planning. These lessons are even more relevant when our students are outside exploring their backyards,” said Jennifer Love, the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) coordinator for Macon County Schools. “Nothing can replace the experience of walking through the garden, seeing the animals at the nature center or having a guest scientist visit your classroom. But the schools certainly appreciate everyone who is going above and beyond to make this experience as normal and meaningful as possible.”

The virtual lessons model hands-on activities and nature observation, with a focus on topics that not only tie into the North Carolina Standard Course of Study but are accessible to almost anyone when they walk out their door, Love said.

The station also was able to host researchers during the summer, including undergraduate students and recent graduates who were scrambling to find internship opportunities after their summer plans were canceled due to the pandemic. Four volunteer research interns from four different universities worked on projects including bird banding, sorting aquatic insects under a dissecting scope and measuring trees as a part of a vegetation survey. In all, the students volunteered more than 580 hours during the summer and fall.

“I’m proud of the Highlands Biological Station staff — I know all this can be demoralizing, but I’m so appreciative of their resilience and determination to keep our momentum going,” said Costa. “I know it’s making a difference to the station, WCU and the broader community.”

(Geoff Cantrell is a staff writer in Western Carolina University’s communications office.)


Learn more

For more information about virtual program offerings at the Highlands Biological Station, including correlations to state curriculum, visit To schedule a program, contact 828.526.4123 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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