Learning and Adapting to a New Environment: SCA Goes Virtual in Response to COVID-19

by Kate Hagner

Like many youth-serving organizations, SCA had to cancel or postpone a number of its programs as a result of COVID-19. Our mission hasn’t changed, however. Our members are counting on these experiences to gain new skills, explore conservation careers, give back to their communities, and build connections. In response, over the past two months SCA has been exploring how to deliver its programs in a new environment: a virtual one. 

Reflection circles, games, shared meals, and coming together with other people in the outdoors toward the completion of a shared conservation project have all historically defined the SCA experience. As we respond to COVID-19, one of many questions we’ve had to answer is: 

What does it mean to be an SCA program when our members can’t be together accomplishing conservation projects in the outdoors?

To do this effectively, we’ve had to dig into recent work that has redefined – and in many ways, broadened – what it means to be an SCA program. In part going virtual has been possible because of investments we’ve made: in improving our understanding of what high-quality SCA programming looks like, developing more consistent practices for social and emotional development, and beefing up training for leaders. 

Currently SCA is pilot testing virtual programs with teams of high school students in our urban Community Programs, young adults in our Gulf Corps and Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps programs, a team from our residential program in western Massachusetts, and interns teleworking from homes nationwide on independent service projects, among others. 

We are finding that we can create transformative SCA experiences that drive toward our outcomes in a setting that is virtual. “We’ve come at these from a lot of different directions,” says Rafael Rosa, Vice President for Program. “It’s been staff-driven. It’s been partners asking us ‘what can you do.’ Everybody has stepped up to the challenge.” Here’s a snapshot of what else we’re learning: 

1. It is possible to run an SCA program virtually. As a result of our work in recent years, we have a clearer understanding of the essential elements of an SCA experience. While social distancing restrictions and organizational safety protocols currently prevent our teams from engaging in the trail clearing, planting, and invasive removal projects typical in our programs, an SCA experience is much, much more. Opportunities for reflection, building relationships with peers, learning about climate change and environmental justice, and engaging in discussion about the effects our actions have on the environment – indeed, everything else that encompasses an SCA experience – can translate surprisingly well to a virtual setting. 

2. Relationship building and emotional safety are still the cornerstone of a high-quality experience. While it requires adaptation and creativity, it’s not impossible to build a team and foster connections across a virtual space. Participants engage in SCA programs via Zoom video conferencing, positioning their cameras so they are visible to their teammates and wear their SCA t-shirts to promote team unity. They create a group agreement that outlines their expectations of one another during their time together. They engage in group welcome circles and debriefs, and play classic SCA get-to-know-you games such as Where the Wild Blows and 21 Questions. In addition to the time they spend together as a group, leaders use the breakout rooms feature in Zoom for one-on-one time with individual participants to check in on how they’re doing and provide support and connection during this challenging time. 

Members in SCA’s Massachusetts AmeriCorps program participated in an online version of a reflection activity that traditionally marks the program’s transition from education season to conservation season. “It’s something all the members look forward to and it’s an opportunity to really open up and share where people are at,” says Program Manager Tim Craig. Members responded to prompts about what they’re looking forward to, what they’re nervous about, what they’re thankful for about the program, and how they want to grow personally for the rest of the program. “The results were still really, really powerful and meaningful,” says Craig, “While we weren’t able to do it in person, we were still able to provide a very similar high-quality SCA experience based on our core values as a program and being part of SCA – even in a virtual setting. It gave me the same warm fuzzy feeling that I get doing it in person.” 

3. Contributing to citizen science is one of the many creative ways dispersed teams can take action for conservation. One of the greatest challenges of a virtual SCA program is working together on a conservation project. Some programs are using the virtual time to dive into training in preparation for a time when fieldwork can resume safely. Other SCA participants are serving virtually by updating resource databases, mapping park features so that local residents can experience the parks through virtual tours, and developing interpretation and educational materials. 

“In addition to online learning,” says Vickery Lauro, program coordinator for PA Outdoor Corps, “we’ve had members do trail surveys in green spaces around their homes and in their neighborhoods. They’ve also taken on seed bombs and planting gardens.” Citizen science provides opportunities for SCA participants to gather data and contribute to research. SCA participants are downloading programs such as iNaturalist, which they use to identify plants and animals while practicing social distancing near their home. Through the process of recording and sharing their observations, these SCA participants are creating research data for scientists who are working to better understand and protect nature. “We’ve made a lot of contributions,” reports Lauro. “Members have been really receptive to that and look forward to practically applying the information they’ve been learning and getting out whenever possible.” 

4. Leveraging learning and resources across programs is key to quick adaptation. Because of the speed with which coronavirus changed how we needed to operate, some SCA programs had only a few days to entirely redesign their program to a virtual setting. Learning and adapting daily has been a necessity for program leaders. To facilitate this process, programs have created mechanisms for participants to provide regular feedback into their experience and co-create what that experience looks like. Program managers of these virtual programs are also leveraging technology, using platforms such as Google Drive and Microsoft Teams, to share what they’re learning, seek advice, and contribute resources and strategies that have worked for their programs. “It is difficult with this many people,” says Lauro. “We have people with different levels of access to the internet, limited access to green spaces or to transportation, as well as different learning styles.” 

The SCA evaluation team is also capturing data about what is happening in these inaugural programs and what we’re learning as a collective so that we can continue to improve virtual engagement in SCA programming and adapt to a changing world. 

5. During COVID-19, the opportunities SCA offers are more important than ever. A recent survey found that loneliness in teenagers is on the rise during the pandemic. More than four in 10 say they feel lonelier and less connected than usual. Because of our expertise fostering close-knit connections among teams of teenagers and young adults, we’re uniquely suited to meeting these critical needs. Social and emotional learning practices, such as engaging in reflection individually and as a group, help participants process the challenges of this present moment and build skills they can draw upon after their SCA program ends. “We’re all in this together,” says Dave Ciernia, program coordinator for SCA Massachusetts AmeriCorps. “Staff is very much with the members – and trying to find ways to keep things engaging for them, keep smiles on people’s faces. In my mind one of our great successes is that all of our members are regularly engaged with our program.” 

Looking ahead

This summer, SCA will continue to engage high school students in its programs in urban centers nationwide. In communities where it is safe to do so, we are currently working with local park partners to evaluate when and where we can safely complete outdoor conservation projects while practicing social distancing. In cities where outdoor work won’t be possible or where outdoor work will be limited, we will engage participants in virtual SCA programming that builds on all we’ve learned. The result will be an experience that may not have a typical conservation project at its center but will still include key elements of the SCA experience and drive toward our intended outcomes. 

“The resourcefulness of our leaders has been a bright spot, says the PA Outdoor Corps’ Lauro, with colleague Steve Luteran adding “It speaks to what SCA does differently: the extra amount of care those leaders give to their team. They really want to see them succeed.” 

After six decades influencing the lives and careers of tens of thousands of participants while providing vital services to our nation’s public lands and communities, SCA remains committed to its mission to build the next generation of conservation leaders and inspire lifelong stewardship of the environment and communities. While for 60 years we’ve accomplished that by engaging young people in hands-on service to the land, the present moment is an opportunity to think bigger, and build upon all we’ve learned to achieve greater impact.