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Our National Parks: America's Classroom

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Mike Buchheit
/
Grand Canyon Association
Increasingly, Distance learning centers like this one at the Grand Canyon National Park are giving students around the country a window into the national parks.

American education is embracing "high-impact” practices such as engagement with real places and problems, experiential and service learning, interaction with people of other backgrounds, and involvement in research. The national parks offer these kinds of opportunities in some of the most iconic places in the nation.

Now is the time to take advantage of these opportunities; The National Park Service has been preparing for this moment for a hundred years.

From the very beginning, the National Park Service has embraced public education. It’s rangers, with their signature Smoky Bear hats, are the public face of the national parks, leading nature walks and campfire talks about the history and natural history of these storied places.

But now these educational programs have been extended well beyond park visitors to schools, colleges and the general public.

The National Park Service has a large presence on the Internet. Websites on all the more than 400 parks offer a wealth of information, including links to resources on “Nature and Science,” “History and Culture,” and “For Teachers.”

Some parks even offer virtual “field trips." Through distance education technology, students can scuba dive with a ranger at Channel Islands National Park off the Coast of California and ask questions in real time. The parks are also represented on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media.

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Credit Brett Seymour / NPS
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NPS
The Live Dive program at Channel Islands National Park, California, interprets the undersea kelp forest to land-based visitors through an interactive underwater broadcast.

Experiencing the national parks, whether on-site or virtually, offers insights into America’s national and cultural heritage like the astounding biodiversity of Great Smoky Mountains National Park – thought to include tens of thousands of species, most of which are still undiscovered.

Or learn about the role of fire in the reproduction of giant sequoia trees and how this has helped revolutionize the ways parks are managed.

The human dimensions of national parks are equally rich — telling stories of conservation history, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement and American ingenuity and technology.

National parks are real places with real problems that are growing increasingly urgent. Climate change is at the top of the list. Learn about its causes and consequences at Glacier National Park which, ironically, will likely lose its last glaciers within the next few decades due to global warming. The potential for student engagement with these kinds of issues is high.

Options for experiential learning include internships in the parks, summer jobs, research grants, and citizen science. National parks also offer the opportunity to work with people of many backgrounds like Native Americans at Navajo National Monument and African-Americans at Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.

In all these ways, national parks might increasingly be considered “America’s classroom."

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