Crayfish hunting and other ecology lessons amid COVID-19

Finger Lakes Community College conservation instructor John Bateman has volunteered his time giving ecology lessons and leading field trips for his hometown elementary school since his twin sons were fifth-graders there in 2011.

The pandemic closed schools in early March putting an end to those visits, but not the connection.

John has been trekking into parks and wooded areas near his home the last several weeks to record short educational videos for Village Elementary School in Hilton, Monroe County.

The videos – recorded by John with his cell phone – have become a vital tool for Village Elementary first-grade teacher Carla Heise. She has been sharing the recorded lessons with her students as she receives them, about once a week.

The elementary videos first began as demonstrations to share with his college students. As COVID-19 has closed campuses and K-12 buildings, it has opened doors for creativity and collaboration among educators at different levels. Ecology in particular can be taught at a basic level to younger children with more sophisticated lessons for college students.

In one video, John filmed himself at a local creek, modeling how to catch crayfish and other aquatic critters.

Within a day of sharing the video with students, Carla started receiving pictures showing what they had caught using the techniques John had demonstrated.  One photo shows student Lucy Smith in a puffy pink coat proudly holding a bucket filled with creek water and creatures.

“After watching the video of Mr. Bateman, Lucy insisted that we go get all of the tools to go and explore the creek,” said her dad, Jake Smith.  “We knew about where he was so we bought what we needed and went for it. Lucy had such a great time and really showed me how to do it.”

Lucy gained some bragging rights, too. According to dad, she caught seven crayfish, three fish, a few bugs and one snail.  “I only caught two crayfish,” he said.

Elementary student holding a net searching for aquatic creatures in a creek
A first-grader from Carla Heise’s class copies what she learned in one of John Bateman’s ecology videos.

“When the pandemic hit, I had to come up with creative ways to deliver content to students taking my Environmental Science course at FLCC,” John said.  “One idea I had was to record videos of me demonstrating laboratory methods out in the field from some parks in my hometown.”

After recording his first FLCC lab, John said he started to consider how he might be able to use the same technology to benefit the first-graders he’d come to know through several visits since the fall.  “On a whim, I recorded the same lab demonstration, but with the content geared toward a much younger audience,” he said.  “It was by no means perfect, but it was a hit with the students.”

John has been working with Carla’s first-grade classes for the last six years. For three years before that he volunteered mostly with fifth-graders, starting with his sons’ class. His sons, by the way, are now students at FLCC; one is in the culinary arts program, the other studies environmental conservation.

“My kids have long since left this school, but I still come back several times a year to work with her students,” John said. “Most visits involve a hike up to a local park that has a stream running through it.  I use the different ecosystems and talk about some of the common themes in her class, such as noting changes from season to season and understanding how plants and animals are adapted to these changes.”

John favors hands-on activities to promote students’ curiosity and passion for the natural world. But until the in-person instruction and elementary school visits return, he will continue sharing his lessons, virtually.

In another video, he crouches in a wooded area, the cell phone video camera perched against some unseen object.  Positioned behind a wildflower that has just started to emerge, he looks into the lens and explains that the plant is called a trout lily, probably because it appears around the same time each spring as trout make their annual migration and because the spots on the leaves resemble those of the fish.

“This is the perfect time for this plant to show up and flower because in a couple weeks when all the leaves are in the trees, it’s not going to get the sunlight it needs,” he explained.

Carla expects her students, at least some of them, to go searching for wildflowers. Maybe she’ll even get a photo or two.

“John truly is a leader in the science world, and we are very lucky to have him as a volunteer in our classroom,” said Carla.

Author: Lenore Friend

Lenore Friend is the community affairs director at FLCC and the college's liaison with Finger Lakes TV. Contact her at (585) 785-1623 or

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