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Lessons Learned from the Virtual 4-H Forest Ecology Contest

By Martha Monroe and Gabi Sullivan, originally published in the ANREP Newsletter.

Most years, about 100 4-Her’s gather on a sunny April Saturday in the school forest at the University of Florida, clipboards in hand and pencils at the ready, to compete in the 4-H Forest Ecology Contest. This year, of course, they stayed home. To help youth cope with the upheaval of home schooling, we moved the contest online to retain one familiar aspect of their spring schedule.

The Florida contest typically involves six stations for Juniors (age 8-10) and Intaermediates (age 11-13): Tree Identification, Forest Health Identification, Map and Compass, Plant Identification, Forest Ecosystems, and Wildlife Identification. Senior participants (age 14-18) compete in Tree Measurement and Forest Management instead of Forest Ecosystems and Wildlife Identification to help them prepare for the National Forestry Invitational.

Our first decision involved selecting which stations to include in the online contest. The identification stations would work if we had access to identifiable photographs, but the skill demonstration stations (follow a compass course; measure the height of a tree) would not. The existing forest ecosystems and forest management multiple-choice quizzes would be easy to convert to the online format. The in-person contest gives youth 20 minutes in each station. We planned for a 2-hour period for four stations in each of the three age-specific contest quizzes.

A number of other decisions and challenges followed. We offer these tips to ease the path for those who might follow.

1. Calling in favors.

We needed lots of help to create the online contest and got it. Faculty and students took photos and reviewed drafts, making sure photos were identifiable. Everyone recognized this as an opportunity to help youth and were happy to assist.

2. Qualtrics or Canvas?

We asked our on-campus experts in distance education to help us evaluate our platform choices. Qualtrics lacks the ability to monitor computer activity but allows contestants to easily access the contest. Both appear to be similar in other aspects. We opted for Qualtrics as it is easier to access, which could be critical if families are less familiar with online platforms.

3. Duplication is not the goal.

The online contest will not be like the live contest. We will what we can do with the resources we have and develop a program that meets revised objectives.

4. Develop a practice quiz.

Based on feedback from a contest coach, we developed an opportunity for participants to open a Qualtrics link and become familiar with the contest question format. Contestants will have the opportunity to ask questions or fix technological problems well before the contest begins.

5. Pilot testing is essential.

We sent each quiz to a group of students, professors, and forestry professionals who helped review and revise the quizzes to identify problems before the contest goes live. Just as we are learning, so are the contestants.

6. Watch the file names.

It is easy to manage photographs if the file name identifies the species. But a savvy contestant can look up the file name of the photograph. Make sure your photographs are uploaded with coded names.

7. Evaluation can help.

Our evaluation is an important strategy to receive feedback and make improvements. Adding a few questions directly to the online contest will increase our typically poor response rate from youth.

8. Keep it for the future.

We may need an online contest in the future, and we now have a good start that can be improved. If we are able to have an in-person contest, this online quiz will be a wonderful study guide for ambitious youth, or a tool to help county agents form teams for the state contest.

View a list of the 2020 contest winners here.