As with many forms of education during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, environmental education has migrated to Zoom, YouTube channels and other forms of virtual presentation.

The transition from outdoors to online has created new opportunities for students to exhibit creativity and reach wider audiences. One such example includes a graduate student in Slippery Rock University’s environmental education program, who as a high school biology teacher, has created a video blog for his students.

“The entire environmental education community is reeling from the effects of COVID-19,” said Becky Thomas, associate professor parks, conservation and recreational therapy. “Environmental educators get into this field because they like to be outside and they like to be interacting with people in-person. With so many things shutting down because of the pandemic, people had to transition to operating in virtual formats. But through that transition, we have identified some ways in which a virtual format actually provides opportunities that are not possible if you are only in person.”

A great example comes from “Captain Coleslaw.” That’s the online moniker of Gino Colella, an online graduate student majoring in environmental education from Saltsburg, who created of an educational outdoors show on his YouTube channel, Captain Coleslaw Outdoors. The name comes from an autocorrect mishap of his surname but Colella uses it to distinguish his YouTube channel from other outdoors shows.

“No one’s going to try to copyright Captain Coleslaw Outdoors,” Colella said with a laugh. “Even my students call me ‘Coleslaw,’ or ‘Mr. Slaw.’ It’s a fun way to keep them engaged with something new to help spread the word. The entire show is supposed to be fun, informative and different, and so far, I’d say that it’s achieving all three.”

Colella teaches high school biology and environmental science at The Kiski School, an all-boys private boarding and preparatory school in Saltsburg.

“When the pandemic hit, I wanted to do something for the kids who were going to be learning in a virtual space,” Colella said. “So, I started a YouTube channel where I literally just video blogged all my hunting, fishing and foraging adventures that I’ve been taking part in my entire life. But in doing so, I’ve been making a special effort to put a biologist and environmental scientist spin on it.”

For example, Colella will set up multiple video cameras, using his smartphone or a GoPro camera strapped to his head, while he hunts deer and then show examples of how the ecosystem suffers if there are too many deer in an area.

“Most students at Kiski are much less exposed to hunting culture compared to other Pennsylvania high schools, but that has made this platform that much more effective because I can show a wild turkey hunt to students who have never even held a gun before,” Colella said.

“There’s a lot for them to take in by watching these videos. It has opened a lot of their eyes to just how much strategic thought, ethical laws and regulations, and the ecology play into the sport.”

Colella has produced 40 videos since piloting the show last March and he typically assigns an episode for his students to watch each week, tying a classroom lesson into a related topic.

“He’s so excited about these opportunities,” Thomas said. “He has a very supportive administration at his school that is open to innovation and trying new things, and for him to be able to apply his learning at SRU in this way is just awesome.”

Colella is enrolled in Thomas’ Social Science Research Methods in Conservation this semester and he and Thomas have applied for grants to study the effectiveness of virtual environmental education practices such as using Captain Coleslaw Outdoors.

To learn more about Slippery Rock’s park and resource management and environmental education programs, visit the Parks and Conservation Department webpage.

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