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Our national parks have always been “islands of learning,” helping to inform the public about topics ranging from the lives of our nation’s presidents to the earth’s dynamic history. And much like islands, these opportunities have historically only been available to those with the means to visit in person.
But now, thanks to a greater adoption of technology by parks personnel, many of these previous in-person-only experiences are now open to the wider world.
While no photo can ever truly capture the majesty of the Yosemite Valley, and no technology-enhanced experience will ever replace the feeling you get standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, there are myriad ways that you can bring “America’s Best Idea” into your classroom to create amazing learning experiences for students, no matter where you live. Here are just a few that you may want to consider integrating into your curriculum.
1. Distance learning programs
More than half of the 63 national parks provide distance or virtual learning programs where park rangers link up with classrooms across the country to video chat on topics ranging from animal adaptations to geological forces.
You just need to know where to look in order to sign up. That’s why I’ve created a directory of all existing distance-learning programs available for the 2022-23 school year. The directory includes topics and the dates the programs are offered as well as information about how to sign up.
This resource includes only national parks, not the monuments, historic sites and other units that make up the entire park system. So there might be many more places you can discover by checking the website of the park that aligns to your learning goals.
2. Virtual passports
If you are a park buff, you might own a Passport to Your National Parks booklet that allows you to get a stamp every time you visit a park. Did you know there’s also a virtual version that students can complete online?
Virtual passport programs for 2020 and 2021 link students to interesting and exciting learning opportunities. They cover myriad science and history topics, including a special collection on the Network to Freedom focused on civil rights. Once completed, students can print out their own passport stamp as a way of showing that they have completed their visit.
3. Junior Ranger at a distance
Younger visitors to national parks have the opportunity to earn their junior ranger badge by completing a series of educational activities that teach about each park and its significance. After completion, they receive a certificate along with a wooden ranger badge that they can wear to signify their new status.
The majority of national parks that offer an onsite junior ranger program also have virtual versions. Students can download and print off their own packet, fill it out and mail it to the park to get their badge, just as if they were there in person.
There are even some thematic Junior Ranger badges that students can complete, like the ones listed here. If you are looking for a list of all the parks that offer Junior Ranger at a distance, this page provides a good overview. But it is always best to go to the park website to see what they offerl.
4. Virtual interpretive tours
About 300 million people a year visit our national parks, and many of those visitors post photos and videos they’ve taken on the web. These images include 360° photospheres that can be viewed through platforms like Google Maps. When correctly sequenced, you can use them to create a virtual tour, very much like the ones that rangers give every day.
Thanks to a grant from National Geographic, I was able to create three such tours that you can look at and use. There are also directions for creating your own.
5. Virtual hikes
Hiking is one of the most popular activities offered by national parks, probably because it’s not just a great form of exercise for your body, but also for your mind. Taking students on such excursions can also help them develop their observational skills, practice using descriptive language and prompt them to ask questions.
While you can absolutely do this in your own community, there is a way to simulate hiking in the national parks.
Google Trek is a program that took the Google Street view camera and mounted it on a backpack, allowing hikers and explorers throughout the world to document thousands of miles of trails.
You can use the same technology to take kids down iconic trails, such as the Blue Mesa Loop in Petrified Forest National Park. Combine these hikes with activities like nature journaling, wonder walks or simple thinking routines, such as see-think-wonder. This website shows how you can integrate a virtual hike into a larger inquiry-based activity.
As you can see, there are plenty of ways to connect students with national parks that don’t require travel of any kind!
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.