Zoom call.

Meiyi Yu and Hannah Thurlby lead a virtual field trip exploring birds in nature.

Photo courtesy of Harvard Ed Portal

Campus & Community

Exploring from home

6 min read

Harvard Ed Portal virtual field trips help students see the world

Allston-Brighton students have been able to travel around the world with no airline ticket required.

Virtual field trips through the Harvard Ed Portal have taken youngsters to five of the 10 wonders of the world, shown them a hummingbird in action, and on May 26 they’ll be visiting Carlsbad Cavern — all without leaving their home.

In March, many of the Ed Portal’s in-person programs were moved online. For Youth Programming, this meant finding a way to continue to mentor students and provide them with fun, engaging classes from afar.

Just this past month, Harvard undergraduates hosted the first segment of the two-part series “Colors of the Rainbow Art Exploration,” where Allston-Brighton students in grades three through five explored how various artists use color in their work, how different colors made them feel, and experimented with using color in their own paintings.

Zorayda Montemayor ’22 and Mika Simoncelli ’23 alternated sharing their computer screens with students and used the Google Arts & Culture Color Explorer to look at paintings that featured primary colors such as red, yellow, and blue.

“As a mentor, art was the area I always wanted to focus on, so it’s been fun to plan around what I’m interested in,” said Simoncelli.

The students shared how the colors made them feel when they looked at them, and how the each of the paintings portrayed different moods.

“My favorite color is yellow, and it makes me feel warm,” said one student. “Light blue makes me feel like I’m breathing fresh air,” said another. Students also used the online tool Sketchpad to make their own drawings.

“In person we do a lot of interesting learning and exploration, and with the online resources there are a lot of things to explore that we can’t see in person.”

Meiyi Yu ’22

Simoncelli said she hopes the sessions have helped alleviate the burden of parents who are trying to balance working and taking care of their children full time.

Harvard Ed Portal Mentoring Coordinator Ethan Davies, who manages the online programs and facilitates children with their Zoom calls, said the virtual transition was unexpected and challenging.

“Transitioning to virtual programming came really quickly to our programs at the Ed Portal,” said Davies. “At the onset, I had some big questions about how our programming would fit into these new realities for families. I had no idea if they would be overwhelmed with the changes to school and family life, losing the capacity to engage in learning opportunities outside of the typical school curriculum. It has been really wonderful to see engagement continue in the virtual format.”

Last month, elementary school students once again explored the art world, this time taking a virtual field trip to the Museum of Modern Art.

Led by mentors Hannah Thurlby ’23 and Meiyi Yu ’22, the students shared their ideas about the paintings they viewed on through Thurlby’s screenshare.

Students examined a picture of Nicola Lopez’s “BK” from Pulled in Brooklyn, then worked together to compose a poem about the painting and how it made them feel. Each student sent their stanza in the Zoom video chat, Thurlby and Yu combined them, and the students decided to title their collective poem “The Giant Painting.”

They then worked together to write an imaginary story about another work of art, and used an online program called 3D Slash to make their own sculpture as a group.

Thurlby said both classes have gone very well, though they require a lot of advanced planning to keep students engaged over video calls. Yu added that the programs give the mentors a chance to try new lesson styles.

“Transitioning to virtual programming came really quickly to our programs at the Ed Portal. … It has been really wonderful to see engagement continue in the virtual format.”

Ethan Davies, Harvard Ed Portal mentoring coordinator

“With the online field trips, it really brings something special to the program,” said Yu. “In person we do a lot of interesting learning and exploration, and with the online resources there are a lot of things to explore that we can’t see in person.”

Despite the difference in format, Davies said he is pleased students are still enthusiastic about learning new subjects.

“We are getting students enrolling in programs, showing up with a curiosity for learning that matches what we had in our in-person programming,” said Davies.

More recently, Allston-Brighton students took a nature-themed trip to explore the world of birds. Students spent their time on the field trip identifying bird calls, learning about hummingbirds, watching birds on live cams and taking quizzes, while interacting with instructors both on the call and in the accompanying Zoom chat.

On another trip, William Sutton ’23 and Andre Ferreira ’23 led a trip around the globe to visit five of the 10 wonders of the world, including Stonehenge, Petra, the Taj Mahal, Chichén-Itzá, and the Colosseum, using a combination of programs like Google Maps and AirPano to explore the sites.

“This is our first real run-through, and I was pleasantly surprised at the kids contributing pretty well,” said Sutton. “The biggest challenge is making sure the students feel engaged. Bringing them in is a lot harder when they’re not in person.”

Ferreira added that mentors are trying to maximize learning through the digital platform.

“I would much rather be with the kids themselves in person, but I think that we are making the best out of it with Zoom,” said Ferreira. “Sometimes there’s tech difficulties, but I think we make the best out of it. I like to see when the kids are active and want to participate.”

Upcoming youth programs include Shakespeare Takes the Stage, Explore the Animal Kingdom, and Spelunking Underground.

“I have been so thankful to our undergraduate population of students who have continued to engage with Allston-Brighton students despite major changes to their own personal and scholastic lives,” said Davies. “I’m thrilled that our undergrads are continuing to virtually join us in programming as they have returned to their homes across the country. I think it speaks to their commitment to personal community engagement.”