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Park-Based Problems - Finding Challenging Problems for Inquiry within America's Best Idea

Learning works best when it revolves around student led inquiry into real world problems that require the application of content and skills. Students can either learn within a vacuum where they are constantly asking themselves and their teachers, “why is this important?” or they can make authentic connections to what they are learning by using their knowledge to produce products that are both valuable outside of the classroom and reflect mastery of standards.

Most teachers have a fair amount of experience when it comes to helping students develop understanding of content standards, but finding real world situations where they can practice turning their knowledge into tangible and useful understanding is trickier. Where can one find a ready-made source of authentic, observable problems that come with free educational resources created by experts that you can leverage to help your students develop their understanding and ultimately, present solutions to those problems?

This is where a marriage between classrooms and national parks proves to be so fruitful. The conservation and interpretation of the natural and cultural features encapsulated within the park system provides ready-made challenges for students to take on the problems that rangers deal with every single day, many of which require the same content knowledge they are trying to learn.

Below are several suggestions for finding resources that lend themselves to the kind of “real-world” processes and problems that we all want our students to have experience exploring and thinking about;

Check the educational materials section of park websites: The mission of the national parks isn’t limited to conservation, but includes educating the public about their importance. As Freeman Tilden said, “education leads to conservation” To fulfill that mission, national parks produce and share exceptional educational materials not just on site, but also at a distance. Video ranger talks, lesson plans, podcasts, and virtual tours are available on a majority of park websites. These resources can easily be integrated into any lesson, and many of them are aligned to national frameworks such as the common core and the NGSS.

Here are some examples of these materials, produced by educators and ranger-experts, for learners of all ages;

Integrate park foundation document: As part of their management, parks periodically release reports about the state of the park. These reports detail not just facts like the size of the park, the number of visitors, and recent land acquisitions, they also describe many of the challenges and problems that park staff grapple with daily. Essentially, these reports share a plethora of real-world challenges that can be integrated into inquiry-based projects or design challenges.

Two documents in particular that you should keep a lookout for are the state of the park annual report and the foundation document summary. The State of the Park report is highly-detailed and provides a lot of information, in some cases almost too much. It also has a visual system for “mapping” the parks most pressing challenges that help students as they inquire about the challenges this park faces. This document is more technical, more detailed, but also more data rich making it a great resources for science classes or for helping students develop technical reading skills.

In the example, you can see that Timucuan Historical and Ecological Preserve faces significant challenges in the form of landform alternation (pg. 6) brought on by sediment and industrial dredging. Many of the parks most important historic resources, such as Kingsley Plantation and Fort Caroline, abut the water and are at risk from erosion-based damage. Knowing this, students could investigate how the revitalization of native shoreline vegetation and shellfish habitat can help mitigate erosion, and in doing so, they can address NGSS standard MS-ESS3-3.

The second document, well suited for younger learners, is the Foundation Document Overview, which provides a more succinct and accessible summary of the park’s significance along with ongoing efforts to address challenges. This document, which is more narrative-driven and less data heavy, is great for projects that focus on exploring the historic and cultural connections between the park and learning standards.

For example, (pg. 3) one the most recent land acquisitions by the park is American Beach, a section of Florida coastline that was a popular resort community used by African Americans during the time of Jim Crow. Students could learn about the community, its importance, and place it in the broader context of segregation and the civil rights movement through producing short-form documentaries, recording podcasts, or creating media-rich websites about sharing they learned.

Recreate Responsibly: A near-universal challenge facing most parks is the tendency of guests to act irresponsibly. Just recently, a woman from Connecticut was arrested, jailed, and fined for going off trail in Yellowstone (and to be honest, she got off lightly considering she could have been boiled alive by the active thermal features in the area she was walking) Restrictions on behavior exist for both the safety of visitors as well as the integrity of the park, and the messaging behind them can always be improved, creating opportunities for students to research, write, and reflect on standards-aligned work.

For example, students might learn about the science behind White Nose Syndrome while investigating cavern ecosystems and the role of bats within them (MS-LS2-4) White Nose Syndrome is a fungus that affects bats and kills them and can be transmitted by people who explore infected caves. These materials from Oregon Caves could be one resources integrated into a lesson focused on this.

There are simple precautions that humans can take to mitigate their impact on these fragile ecosystems (MS-ESS3-3) and after learning about it, students can devise a way to inform park visitors about this. Visuals, online resources, or downloadable brochures can all be created, shown to the public for feedback, and revised to ensure they meet both quality and academic standards.


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