Exploring Parks at a Distance: Placed Based Learning from your Classroom
In a perfect world, you’d be able to take your students to the park associated with their project in order to provide them a rich opportunity to connect their learning to a real and experiential learning experience. But we don’t always live in a perfect world. Planning and facilitating place-based experiences for students is never easy, and budgets, timelines, transportation, and community support can all stop a trip in its tracks before planning has even begun. However, if we are going to facilitate an interpretive connection between our students and the places we want to connect them to, we need to utilize as many resources as possible.
Parks can be brought to life using a wide-variety of media resources that teachers can access easily and for free. provide more authentic learning experiences for students who can’t be physically present at a park or monument. A quick web search will usually reveal a plethora of high-quality images taken by visitors;
From more focused and official images, check the parks website in their Learn About The Park section for official photos and multimedia;
And don’t limit yourself to simple, 2-D images along. Many parks and park visitors have begun using special cameras or apps to create “photospheres” or 360-degree photos that immerse students in an environment. Using simple observational acitivites like “Find Me 10” where students have to point out ten features or generate ten questions about an environment can be doubly effective when using photospheres;
Video, VR and Multimedia Presentations
Many parks publish video and upload multimedia presentation to their park website to help inform learners and potential visitors about the parks offerings. Some of these videos might also generate ideas for your project theme, such as this collection of videos from the Apostle Islands which highlights the plight of the Snowy Plover;
Some parks even operate their own YouTube channel, providing you with tons of opportunities to integrate video, interpretive programs, and other resources into your lessons;
Video are a great way to help provide learning material for independent research and inquiry for students who might be below reading level. Don’t forget to look at offering by National Geographic, Discovery ED, and other educational content providers. Many of their older programs are now available online for free;
You can also use the video in conjunction with voice dictation software to automatically create transcripts for students to read along with while they listen!
While on YouTube, try and typing in the name of a park and then “360 video” and you might get lucky and find video that can be views through a VR headset or with a mobile phone viewer for a richer VR experience. 360 degree video and VR video helps engage more sense making for deeper and more descriptive observations.
Podcasting and Vlogs
Podcasting is a very popular form of communication that many parks have embraced. They use podcasts to provide visitors with all sorts of information. Many parks produce podcasts on different topics related to their park;
A few parks even produce short online vlogs (video blogs) on a multitude of topics. Canyonlands has a whole series of videos hosted on YouTube that discuss archeology, animal science, and history that is perfect for use as an Entry Event, a differentiated learning resource, or to provide background for an all-class discussion;
But don’t just check the parks page. Make sure to look for work by unaffiliated fans are who may have additional information available from iTunes or their own websites;
The prevalence of smart devices had led to the creation of many apps that can be used to help students feel more connected to parks that are far away. The National Park Service has produced a small library of apps that you can browse here;
Some partner groups, such as the Civil War Trust, also produce their own apps that are well worth using in the classroom;
Although originally designed for visitors, apps can be easily adapted for classroom use through the creation of organizers or as a tool for inquiry, or as part of a “virtual field trip” where students use a map of the park to track their progress during a virtual visit. You can easily turn apps into great guides by asking students to use them to answer questions from the groups Need to Know list at the same time you require them to generate additional questions of their own.
Webcams, or livestreams, are becoming more and more available as WiFi and cellular networks expand. You can bring your students directly into parks and ecosystems across the country any time for scientific observations of plant life, animal behavior, or the environment. Some parks operate their own, like the ever-popular Bear Cam at Brooks Falls in Katmai NP;
but there are also a multitude of ways to access independent ones through searching the right sites;
Web 2.0 Tools
Consuming information is part of the project process but getting students to take deeper dives into content will result in longer retention, richer understanding, and more opportunities for developing success skills and park-based competencies. One strategy for facilitating deeper dives is getting students to create during the course of the project.
Google has several powerful geography tools that are extremely versatile and available to anyone who has a Google Account. Google My Maps is great for students as it allows the creating of custom maps where students can drop pins, insert pictures, and add captions. Teachers can also use this tool to link locations and resources for explorations related to a location like national park;
Also, since Google has made its street view camera available to anyone through its Trekker program, you might be surprised what kinds of “streetviews” you find…
Google’s map tools also include the ever-popular Google Earth, providing students access to overhead images of every part of the earth’s surface, as well street level views that take students along park roads and evens some trails.
Google’s trio of Geography tools rounds out with Tour Builder, a fantastic tool that can be used to demonstrate learning narratively in the form of a clickable presentation. Students can use it as a progress piece to connect the information or resources they have found to the location they reference or use it to tell the story of their project process in the form of a visually-driven reflection.
You can use Tour Builder to create a self-paced learning resource for students. Simply create a tour in Tour Builder that take students to different stops. At each stop on your tour, ask them to complete some sort of performance task. They can submit these through writing, Google Forms, etc. By the end of the map, they will have learned the basic-level knowledge that they will need
WebRangers is a game platform created by the National Parks Service that connect students will all sorts of fun, flash-based games directed towards learning. You can use these as Energizers when engagement begins to wane or to help students connect with content in a more interactive way;
Some parks have also developed their own interactive games and exhibits that when used at the right time, can provide great material for reflections, revisions to projects, or discussion starters;
And although there is a bit of a price tag connected to it, if you happen to have PC’s at your school that can handle it, you can have your students play the ULTIMATE park ranger simulator…
Other Park Related Resources
Some parks and conservation groups provide amazing resources that give students access to data they couldn’t get inside the park. Yosemite’s Keep Bears Wild initiative provides real-time GPS tracking of the locations of bears inside the park that can be accessed online. This resource could be used for math projects that calculate the range of bears, science projects about the needs of living things, or language arts projects persuading the parks to take direct action to protect wild bear populations;
Google’s Art and Culture project has some fantastic park-related resources that are accessible for free. You can access free exhibits from the collection of park sites across the United States can be used as artifacts for inquiry exercises or study circles;
If you can’t bring your students to the park, bring the park to your students. Over 100 parks sites have distance learning programs available to schools across the U.S. Most of the time all you need to do to connect with these programs is send an email or make a phone call but try to do so early because many park units limit the number of distance learning experiences they provide.
Even if a park doesn’t have a designated distance learning program, you may have luck just calling the one you’d like to connect with and asking. Many rangers are willing to use government-issued cellular devices to give walkthroughs or set up discussions if you ask.
If you can’t get a ranger to video-chat due to their schedule, ask if they’d be willing to look at students work and give feedback, or if they’d be willing to answer a list of student questions that you send. This way you can access their authentic knowledge without have to worry about making an appointment for a video chat.