Place in A Virtual World

With the beautiful weather of late, I truly hope you all have been increasing your outside to screen time ratio dramatically. While the weather may feel liberating, as we’re still in our home offices, much of our work and learning context is still screen-based (until July 6th for summer camps and wildlife tours!!).

At a dark, cold, and snowy TSS Board meeting over two years ago, Board member at the time Rob Wallace pushed us to think about what “place” and place-based education are and will be in a virtual setting. At the time, it felt like a very forward-thinking, yet theoretical, concept. As we can all attest to, our virtual PBE skills have been tested and honed over the last 3+ months. Rob’s comment came rushing back to me in late May while (virtually) meeting our summer Americorps cohort — eight people enacting the TSS mission through service at community organizations across the Tetons while living in their homes across the country. Local to global (or global to local) place-based education embodied.

Simply going to virtual is not the success in virtual PBE. Building an education ecosystem that is more resilient and accessible is progress. The last three months are reflective of the acceleration required of organizations and all of us to not wait for the future to arrive but to jump ahead now to the future we see for TSS, our mission, and vision. From Mountain Academy students finishing their academic year with almost three months of high-quality virtual learning to our first Grad virtual graduation to our first virtual Americorps cohort, we have many leaps forward to celebrate.

Building a more resilient organization (programmatically, financially, operationally) and striving for greater student access, I expect us to do this more even post COVID. Check out these three great examples of TSS alum using engaging people virtually in place:

  1. Yesterday, Wyoming Public Radio posted their most recent HumaNature podcast — Starstruck. In 10 minutes, TSS alum and Education Committee member Juan Martinez tells the story of his physical journey from Los Angeles to the Kelly Campus and his personal journey to a life of meaning through nature and place.
  2. Last month, NPR weekend host Scott Simon interviewed early TSS employee Terry Tempest Williams as part of his “Open Book” series. Put down what you’re doing and take 30 minutes to watch their conversation and be transported to the vibrant Utah desert with a heart and intellect that only these two can bring.
  3. Over the weekend, Public Radio’s Living On Earth included an interview with 2019 Murie Spirit of Conservation Rising Leader and early NPS Academy graduate, CJ Goulding. CJ read excerpts of his “Why I Wear Jordans in the Great Outdoors” essay and spoke about both himself and his footwear serving as “stepping stones” to support black and brown students access and feel welcome in a new place.

Evolving to be a more resilient organization is not a promise but a commitment we must all share. The key to unlock it lies within evolution of program and new revenue opportunities. Each of us play a role in being scrappy, holding our mission and vision front and center, and evolving programming that is high quality and still accessible (with associated revenue) through the physical distancing of our current pandemic. The resilience built through this will serve our mission and our team well beyond the resolution of our current pandemic, be that 12 months or 24 months, or the next TSS alumnus on NPR.

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