In 1872, a portion of the future state of Wyoming — home to the planet’s largest collection of thermal geysers and vents — was designated as the world’s first national park. It would become one of many such areas managed and protected by governments for the benefit of the people everywhere. Critics questioned whether the idea of a national park system would catch on, but it did, and before long, parks were appearing across the U.S. and around the world.
Today, over 150 years later, the idea has gone global with nearly 100 countries designating and preserving some of their most important cultural and natural treasures. This isn’t just a win for the planet and our shared global heritage, it’s also a win for you and your students because national parks offer ample opportunities for students to collaborate on meaningful work with people from around the world.
Here are just some of the ways you can leverage national parks resources as a springboard for student learning.
1. Sharing stories and empowering learners through digital tools
Sharing stories is a great way for students to learn with and from one another. Whether students’ share about their experiences in the parks or they tell about lived experiences that relate to themes and stories preserved within the system, encourage students to use social media to share their thoughts using the hashtag #MyParkStory.
If students have yet to be connected to their parks, you might register for the Virtual Youth Conservation Leaders to introduce them to the important role they can play in preserving and protecting America’s parks.
2. Collaborate with experts through digital platforms
Every park unit was preserved because some aspect of it was important and unique to understanding the natural and cultural history of the area. For many parks that host foreign visitors, the parks help articulate the history and values of our country, a mission that your learners can contribute to by collaborating with the experts who work at the parks.
Most national park units have educational resource rangers who offer distance learning programs on many different topics that can support work being done in the classroom. Students can learn about zero-waste initiatives at Yosemite, efforts to restore coral reefs in Biscayne Bay or the challenges of preserving the historic structures at Mesa Verde.
And for students who are ready to explore parks beyond their own borders, there are great interactive models and exhibits on sites like Google Art and Culture and Cyark that support projects focused on history, geography and the natural sciences.
3. Contribute to citizen science
Teamwork is a skill that we want all of our students to develop, and national parks offer some great opportunities to build cooperative learning strategies as students explore the world around them.
Students can learn about all sorts of topics while completing the Junior Ranger programs. Not only do these programs promote collaborative, inquiry-based explorations, they also help students understand what acting responsibly looks like and teach students to model good behavior for other visitors. Many of them even offer students the opportunity to get their certificate and badge by mail.
If you’re looking for a real-world science project, many parks across the country and the globe need help with important monitoring projects. Find them on the Citizen Science page or through websites like iNaturalist. Examples of these projects include identifying photos of species or compiling data.
4. Explore global challenges and create local solutions
It is no secret that our world faces many challenges, and that it will be up to our students to help solve them. Parks personnel are already working on some of the biggest problems that exist today, like protecting our oceans or mitigating the effects of climate change, and some of their solutions might inspire local action.
The Green Parks Plan is the National Park Service’s answer to making parks more carbon neutral and sustainable. Students can use this plan to adapt some of the solutions to make a positive impact on their local communities. Exploring other sustainability projects, adapting them and sharing the results or their own variations can inspire others to action as well.
If you’re looking for a platform for students to share their ideas and put their solutions out into the public sphere, consider participating in National Geographic’s Slingshot Challenge, a contest that asks youth to propose solutions to many of our world’s greatest challenges.
Incorporating the national parks into your curriculum is something you can do for any age group or within any subject area, and you don't even need to visit a park to take advantage of the vast educational resources the National Park System offers.
James Fester, who lives in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, is the author of Environmental Science for Grades 6-12. He's a former educator who is passionate about project-based and experiential learning and has worked as classroom teacher, instructional coach and technology integrationist. He is a member of the PBLWorks National Faculty and is a National Park Service volunteer who collaborates on educational programs for parks across the country. He works as a consultant and his writing has been featured in National Geographic, TED-Ed and KQED.
This is an updated version of a post the originally posted on April 18, 2023.