Immersing Learners in New School Year

Guest Correspondence

One of the most popular and exciting immersive learning experiences supported by the Education Foundation of Sarasota County had to be put on indefinite hold in the spring of 2020 when the pandemic resulted in many campus activities being curtailed.   

In the spring of 2021, thanks to creative collaboration among partners, the reimagined immersive experience resumed with resounding success.   

A little background: It’s been proven that an environment that allows students to learn by doing and getting hands-on experience enhances long-term knowledge retention. In recognition of this fact, since the 2017-18 school year, the Education Foundation has provided schoolwide grants for science-based immersive events at elementary and middle schools across Sarasota County.

Simulated events included the “Great Impact” meteor landing, the “Big Dig” archaeological site, the “HOh No!” damaged watershed, and an “Outbreak” in a city.

Details changed according to the specific simulation, but a consistent element was the students’ surprise and excitement when they returned to campuses to “discover” and then be invited to participate in unexpected scientific explorations.

Our partners were the schools that hosted the events as learning opportunities for students and professional development for teachers, and Immersive Academics’ principals Mitch Ruzek and Dana Zeidler, both University of South Florida science professors and designers of the simulations.

Before the pandemic, the simulations were designed to invite curious students to join in the dig, put their heads together to examine a fossil, or pass around an ancient artifact.

Students eagerly participated, asking questions and exclaiming when they made their own discoveries. Teachers reported that students showed more enthusiasm for science and a better understanding of science-based inquiry.

Redesigning an experience that was built around “hands-on” engaging was a big undertaking, but having her students lose out on the exciting learning opportunity was not acceptable to Susan Nations, principal of Wilkinson Elementary School.

A team of Wilkinson educators, led by Nations, collaborated with professors Ruzek and Zeidler and Education Foundation staff to creatively adapt the “Great Impact” simulated meteor landing in a way that kept its deep immersive, engaging aspects while following public health social distancing guidelines and safety protocols.

The successful result unfolded when students and teachers returned from spring break to discover a meteor had landed and created a crater on campus. The weeklong immersive project brought earth space science and geology to life for Wilkinson students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Principal Nations said, “It was great to see our students so engaged and enthusiastic. It’s important that, as educators, we keep finding new and different ways to provide our students with hands-on learning experiences. Our Wilkinson community is committed to our focus on STEAM integration, and we are thankful to the Education Foundation for funding this project that helps us keep moving forward despite the pandemic.”

Our team at the Education Foundation shares Susan Nations’ desire and commitment to “keep moving forward despite the pandemic.” With that responsibility to our students and teachers in mind, I am happy to announce that we will provide at least two more immersive grants for science-based scenarios during this school year.

We continue encouraging innovative and creative teaching models and formats that engage students and support teachers.

We invite anyone who wants to learn more about our work in support of education to visit us at EdFoundationSRQ.org or give us a call.

Jennifer Vigne is president and CEO of the Education Foundation of Sarasota County.

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