James Fester
A man sits on the top of a cliff looking out into a gorgeous valley

In 1872, Yellowstone became the world’s first national park, and early visitors arrived full of questions about the landscape that surrounded them. 

The first “guides” were actually U.S. Army soldiers stationed there to protect the park. They took it upon themselves to informally answer questions about the area’s famous geothermal vents and geysers. 

Then in 1916, the National Park Service was officially formed, and soon park rangers were guiding the learning at parks across the country. 

Just like classroom teachers, park rangers use technology to fulfill the educational mission of their parks in ways that are both familiar and surprising. The National Parks can provide avenues for high-quality project-based learning that infuses authentic work with engaging educational technology.

In honor of National Park Week, which runs from April 16-24, here are some suggestions for creating connections between National Parks and your classroom!

Constructing knowledge through exploration

Parks are places that naturally evoke curiosity and wonder. A visit to any of the more than 432 units in the park system produce deep, open-ended invitations for inquiry like these: 

How long did it take the Grand Canyon to get so deep? 
How did Yosemite’s Half Dome get its iconic shape? 
Where did the people who built Mesa Verde’s amazing cliff dwellings go?

Answering these questions can help students meet required standards and learning goals, but only if you use the right resources.       

Visitors to parks have access to free-choice learning, meaning there are many different options for how visitors can build knowledge. This concept mirrors best practices in the classroom, namely that students should have access to a variety of resources that engage students who have different learning preferences and create personalized learning pathways. Some examples of the ways that park resources support this include these:

Virtual tours

Students who can’t visit in person can still get a National Park experience wtih virtual tours. Some of them, like this one of the Hampton Mansion in Maryland, are fully interactive with lots of embedded information that can aid inquiry. Others, like this remarkable experience created by Google Art and Culture, are more structured and well suited for younger audiences.   

Distance learning programs

If you can’t bring your students to the park, consider bringing the park to your students! Many park units have excellent distance learning offerings that offer deep learning and answer the toughest questions of the curious minded. Find a complete list of over 250+ free distance learning programs here

Video and audio

Olympic National Park in Washington state was the site of one of the largest ecosystem restoration projects in U.S. history when two dams were removed from the Elwha river. This well-documented project provides excellent opportunities for students to learn about human impact and how ecosystems work, but many of the readings are highly technical and could prove difficult for some students to comprehend. Video resources like these or audio resources like this can be helpful scaffolds or create choice opportunities.    

Virtual museums

Museum and visitor centers are prime examples of free-choice learning where students can follow their own curiosity and find resources that answer their own questions. Many parks host virtual museums, like this one featuring the natural and human history of Death Valley.  Check out this directory of available virtual exhibits!   

Standards-based lessons and activities

Free-choice learning constructs like classroom stations or playlists can be time consuming, so sometimes just having a large collection of standards-aligned material to draw on can be extremely helpful. The NPS Educator Portal provides a searchable repository with hundreds of lessons and activities that can be integrated into your classroom, saving you time in the process.

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Carrying out the mission of the National Parks

Finding opportunities for students to engage with and contribute their solutions to projects focused on real-world problems, both in and outside of their community, can be challenging, but the National Parks provide opportunities for just such experiences!   

One of the best examples of this is still taking place in the Pacific Northwest. The Columbia River Gorge along the border of Oregon and Washington has a long and rich human history, one that the park rangers at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site know very well. 

This park tells many stories with the help of an astounding collection of artifacts that totals more than 2.1 million individual items! With limited display space, the park is only able to share a small number of these artifacts at any given time, a problem that they are finally addressing thanks to a collaboration with a group of local students.

For the last few years, Vancouver iTech Preparatory teacher John Zingale and his students have been using technology to help the park display its objects while allowing these students to engage in high-quality project-based learning. 

Using iPads and the free app Qlone, students scan items from the park's massive collection and display them online, first as part of a student-created virtual museum, and more recently in a smartphone app. This remarkable collaboration is just one example of what students can do when they work with park service.

Here are some other examples of ways your students can engage with parks across the country:

Contributing to citizen science

The National Parks routinely conduct citizen science investigations to monitor important park resources. This is not only a great way to model data-collection and analysis techniques, it also demonstrates the importance of investigation in the scientific process. While many have in-person components, some include remote opportunities as well.

The list on this website describes some of the citizen science projects sponsored by national parks. Students can also visit sites like Citizenscience.gov or use sites like iNaturalist to design and conduct their own projects!

Proposing a project

As parks have become more popular in recent years, staff are often diverted away from projects focused on visitor experience, like developing new self-guided materials. This leaves a gap that your students could fill with their own expertise, so reaching out to a park in your area or one where you see the potential for a collaboration could create the connection you need.

 Does the park need educational materials for younger audiences? Your students could do that! Is the park interested in video footage for park social media like Acadia’s Youth Tech Team produces? They could do that!  

Whatever your learning goals might be, connecting them to National Parks provides numerous opportunities for deepening student learning. If you’re looking for more resources or exemplar projects to adapt or model your own after, a good place to start is the Park Based Learning Project Gallery where you can download complete projects for every grade level for free.

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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 currently works as a consultant and his writing has been featured in National Geographic, TED-Ed and KQED, and in a new book on PBL and environmental science being published by ISTE.