PORTS Expands Student Access to California State Parks with Zoom
California's PORTS program brings the state's amazing parks and interactive digital experiences to more than 1 million students with Zoom.
California State Parks PORTS Program
Industry: Education and recreation
Challenges: Limited capacity or resources to provide in-person access to California’s state parks for K-12 students, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Solutions: Zoom Meetings, Zoom Webinars
Benefits: Scaled the PORTS distance-learning program to reach 1 million students and counting through interactive virtual and blended learning experiences, with 500,000 of those students served between 2019–2021.
We believe video provides access to state parks. We’re always trying to push communications and outreach in education, and we use the best tools available to create engaging digital access. In the last decade or so, we've been using video conferencing out in the field and use Zoom on every device — iPads, Surface Pro tablets, iPhones, and Androids.
Brad KreyProgram Manager, California State Parks
California State Parks is the largest state park system in the U.S., with nearly 300 parks offering a wealth of natural and cultural resources to residents within the state and beyond. But access to these parks can be limited for many people, including students.
In 2004, California State Parks began an initiative to provide video access to its resources and bring the experience to the classroom. The organization began using interactive video conferencing to offer virtual field trips and assist K-12 educators with teaching students about California’s state parks.
Since its inception, the distance learning program, called Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students (PORTS)®, has served more than 1 million students throughout California and beyond. The best part: The PORTS program is committed to providing these virtual learning opportunities at no cost to schools and educators.
Expand traditional classroom walls
Brad Krey is the program manager for California State Parks and recognizes just how valuable classroom time is. He says the PORTS program is a way to expand traditional classroom walls without having to coordinate school schedules, pay for buses and transportation, and obtain the required parental consent.
“While we’d certainly love for every student to visit a California State Park as part of their education experience, the reality is that with over 6 million students enrolled in K-12 public schools in California alone, we don’t have the capacity to accommodate, let alone educate, that many students in person, in our parks,” Krey said. “We’ve seen a shift toward more collaborative learning as we move away from textbooks and as newer, savvier teachers use technology as part of their K-12 curriculums. And PORTS has embraced the opportunity to create modern, interactive learning experiences for students through video.”
Krey described how the PORTS program used to be primarily a green screen operation, with a few of the parks employing chroma-key studios. One challenge PORTS was initially looking to solve through these efforts was providing access to remote park resources. For instance, team members would broadcast live web camera video of elephant seals on Año Nuevo Island off the California coast or record footage in desolate locations in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, where it’s too hot to be outside all day for live programs. They also would record unique interviews with experts, curate images, and mix it all into the chroma-key to run a program with students.
“Because everything has gone mobile, it changed our approach. We realized program delivery could be simplified and less resource-intensive,” Krey said. “We wanted to expand on our original concept to create engaging digital content featuring real-time access to more of our park resources.”
Video provides access
Krey and his team rely heavily on Zoom to expand access and enhance the relationships students can have with the California State Parks system and its expert staff.
“We believe video provides access to state parks,” Krey said. “We’re always trying to push communications and outreach in education, and we use the best tools available to create engaging digital access. In the last decade or so, we’ve been using video conferencing out in the field and use Zoom on every device — iPads, Surface Pro tablets, iPhones, and Androids.”
With Zoom, PORTS can provide live learning experiences with on-site park interpreters, prepare concise video messages to share with students before and after a field trip to a park, and offer unique educational opportunities, including interactive experiences with divers navigating the underwater cultural resources like sunken vessels in Lake Tahoe or one of California’s Marine Protected Areas.
One of the program’s newest initiatives is passPORTS, a blended learning experience that combines virtual and in-person components. “Blended access is the idea that we should be providing digital experiences when possible as an enhancement for potential in-person experiences,” Krey explained.
Through passPORTS, students may start with a virtual field trip to “meet” park staff, ask questions, and learn about how to prepare for their park visit. That experience is then followed by an in-person field trip that allows students to explore the park with a higher level of familiarity.
The PORTS program also has leveraged Zoom for a social media campaign in collaboration with the California Coastal Commission highlighting sea-level rises. California State Parks uses the campaign to showcase naturally occurring, extreme high tides to capture the effects rising sea levels will have on coastal parks and communities.
“We use the webinar feature to create broadcasts from multiple state parks along California’s coast and push it out onto social media as a means to expand our outreach and our digital footprint,” Krey said.
Zoom removes barriers to adoption
The PORTS program uses Zoom’s communications platform to provide students with the ability to interact with park professionals and access California state parks in a meaningful — and totally free — way. With Zoom, the program reached a significant milestone in 2021, celebrating 1 million students served.
It took the PORTS program 15 years to reach 500,000 students, but just two years to double that number. In 2020 alone, PORTS provided more than 5,000 live, interactive sessions to a record 250,000 students. “We just couldn’t do what we do without partnerships like Zoom,” Krey said.
PORTS Program Coordinator Jennifer Langer works directly with school districts, teachers, and IT administrators to ensure success on the classroom end and provide best-practices to engage students. She describes how easy-to-use technology like Zoom has removed many barriers to adoption in the classroom.
“The teachers are already familiar with the Zoom platform and are very receptive to it, and they’re thrilled with how easy it is to connect,” she said. “With Zoom, we do a lot less troubleshooting, and that’s a big deal for teachers who have limited IT staff to help with connection issues.”
For the 2021-22 school year, teachers have already booked more than 5,300 PORTS program sessions, showing a continued desire to stay connected with California State Parks through virtual experiences. For Krey, enhancing program offerings in new and creative ways will remain essential for student engagement.
“Core to that is the evolution of technology,” Krey said. “We’re leveraging the newest tools applicable to student engagement and staying current with what’s out there, using polls, Kahoot, screen sharing, immersive screen sharing. We’re taking a Jabra camera with a 180-degree field of view and automatic tracking and putting it outside a visitor center in the redwoods, where it will follow the presenter around as they tell kids about the ecology of these trees.”
Krey believes the PORTS program has flipped the script on public engagement, education, and access to valuable cultural and natural resources.
People in our field have traditionally been analog first — we need to get kids into parks — but we’ve identified that using tools like Zoom allows for a virtual introduction for students to entice and excite them for a potential visit. We’re always looking at how we can put California State Park resources out there to the U.S. and the world and love how a digital-first approach can assist us in meaningful educational outreach.
Brad KreyProgram Manager, California State Parks