Teach Like A Ranger Part III: Connecting Science Standards to Parks and Public Lands

Our public lands are living laboratories for learning. The result of impossible to observe natural processes are on full display. Scientists actively observe, measure, analyze, and use the results to address real problems and challenges. Rangers interpret the meaning of historic events through evidence and artifacts to help share the story of our history and its people. The meaning and importance of parks has been continually examined and expressed through literature and the arts.


These connections are just a few of the reasons why teachers looking for real-world and authentic examples of the content they are teaching in the classroom. Whatever you are teaching, be it science or subtraction, history or hyperbole, public lands provide opportunities for teachers to create learner-centered lessons for teaching all sorts of content. In fact, I’m willing to go so far as to say that whatever content standard or learning goal, there is a park-made resource you can utilize within your lessons.


While it’s all well in good to make hypotheses in regards to opportunities that teachers CAN find, what is more helpful is a structure that allows you to do this on your own even if you don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of parks and the learning connections that they can provide. What follows below are some suggestions for getting started with park-based learning lesson design.


Getting Started -


Beginning to map out public land connections to your learning goals is a little bit of a horse before the cart/cart before the horse process. But luckily, you can start with the horse or the cart;


1) Begin with the End in Mind: You can start with the learning goal, or what you want your students to learn about by the end of the unit or project, then try to figure out connections to the content on your own.


Example: NGSS Kindergarten Standard K-LS1-1 asks students to describe similarities and differences they see between what plants, animals, and humans need to survive. Some of the things that a teacher will need help the students in their class learn are…


- Humans and animals need to take in food, plants do not.

- Different animals eat different things.

- Plants need light to make their own food.

- All living things need water.


Taking just these four outcomes into account, an area with a varied environment that has a variety of plants, herbivores, carnivores would be most helpful. It would also be helpful if the environment had species that were similar to those the students might know so the teacher could leverage prior knowledge and the world view of their students. There are a lot of parks that could easily meet this criteria, including state and county-managed locations, but there are advantages to considering larger, national parks.


One of them, Indiana Dunes Nat’l Park, exceeds all of these requirements. Ranked fourth among all national parks for biological diversity, it is home to a variety of common animals such as white-tailed deer, coyotes, as well as many species of bird, reptile, and fish. This means that students will have a good amount of choices for inquiry and there will be lots of well-known species for teachers to use during activity modeling.


Another element that makes it a good choice is the diverse ecosystems within the park that host more than 1,000 plant species. The parks woodlands, savannah, wetlands, and beaches provide a variety of examples like oaks, pines, and grasses, but additionally, comparing the “plantless” dunes to the heavily forested woodlands illustrates the needs of plants that aren’t always obvious (nutrient rich soil, water, shelter for germination, etc.) In face, parts of the dunes were the site of some of the earliest ecological research on plant succession in the US.


If the above attributes weren’t reason enough, taking a look at the educational offerings of the park provides additional resources that teachers can borrow from, cutting down on curriculum development time. Here is just a small sample of the curriculum you could mine from in the creation of a life science focused lessons;


Esri Storymaps focused on plant succession and dune movement

Virtual video tours led by park rangers

Extensive lesson plans for multiple grade levels

Curriculum guides for teachers from the Dunes Learning Center

A visually-driven guide to plant ecosystems from Save The Dunes


2) #FindYourPark: You can think of public lands areas that you know well or have connections to and analyze them for opportunities to connect to your standards.


Example: Death Valley Nat’l Park is well known for being the hottest, driest, lowest place in the entire country. The valley’s low basin and high mountains create an environment where unobstructed sunlight heats circulating air masses that become so hot that it isn’t uncommon to have temperatures reach over 100 degrees for weeks on end…even in the shade!


The sunlight that generates this thermal action along with methods used by valley visitors of escaping the baking heat make great authentic examples for students to explore during their Kindergarten unit on energy. Standards K-PS3-1 and K-PS3-2 focus on energy coming from the sun and its effects on the surface of the earth. To demonstrate understand of both these standards, students must be able to…


- make observations about the effects of sunlight on different kinds of terrain (like soil, rock, sand, and water) and use descriptions to compare those differences.

- design and build a structure that can reduce the warming effect of the sun.


While both of these standards require some sort of experiential activity to completely fulfill, the park and its educational resources can become focal points for engagement or inquiry in a numerous ways;


- show students photos or video of the Badwater Basin area and the salt flat to illustrate what sunlight does to water (evaporation)

- show students photos or video of the Racetrack area and ask how sunlight plays a role in the sliding rocks (transitional application of knowledge as assessment)

- watch parts of this vacation video where two guys tour the valley in 130-degree weather! Check out 15:14 for a demonstration of the melting power of the sun!

- watch the video of a park ranger cook an egg with nothing but the sun heating the pan!

- use Google Maps Streetview to look at the Furnace Creek and Panamint Springs area to see how guests escape the sun (umbrellas, awnings, etc.) for inspiration as they design and build their own sunshades.


Additional educational offerings like this student report page will provide opportunities for extended learning for early finishers or curious researchers.


Now some naysayers might suggest that I simply “cherry-picked” standards from the NGSS, but when I say that you can teach ANY standards with park-based resources, I wasn’t kidding. As proof, here is a curriculum map for the rest of the kindergarten earth science standards;


K-ESS2-2: Observing and describing the weather.

K-ESS2-2: How plants and animals change their environment.


Park Connection: Theodore Roosevelt Nat’l Park

Located in the remote badlands of North Dakota, this park’s weather can’t be described as boring. With temperatures ranging from the high 80’s in the summer to below zero in the winter, blizzards, thunderstorms, and even tornados can crop up at a moments notice. Students can compare their own weather to the conditions at this park using the live weather updates page, helping to provide variety if their own observations remain unchanging.


While many “animal engineers” adapt and change natural landscapes to fit their needs, none are more industrious than the Prairie Dog. Theodore Roosevelt is home to several massive Prairie Dog towns, and the park’s website along with vlogs from visitors provide students with plenty of source information about these creative critters.


K-ESS3-1: Modeling the connections between plants, animals, and where they live.

K-ESS3-2: Asking questions about weather forecasting to prepare for extreme weather.

K-ESS3-3: Communicating solutions for reducing human impact on an environment.


Park Connection: Glacier Nat’l Park

The crown of the continent is home to majestic mountains, sparkling lakes, and several permanent glaciers from which the park derives its name. The parks varied ecosystems support all sorts of animal life with some species such as the Mountain Goat or Wolverine surviving in conditions that make them seem like they are superheroes. With that in mind, the park produced an amazing online exhibit called Wildlife Superpowers which introduces some of Glacier’s many animal species and how they thrive thanks to the environments where they live! You can also utilize this lesson which includes food web diagrams to help go more in depth.


Glacier straddles the continental divide, meaning it is ground zero for clashing climates caused by warm, wet air from the Pacific meeting colder, Arctic air swooping in from the north. Weather in the park can be staggeringly different, with some parts of the park getting as little as 23 inches or rain while other parts receive well over 100, and if elevation and temperature conditions are just right, blizzards can occur any time of the year. For these reasons, weather forecasts are especially important, something students can learn from the park weather page or by contacting a park ranger for one of their many distance learning programs.


Finally, Glacier is visited annually by more than 3 million people, making it one of the most popular national parks in the country. This brings with it many challenges in the form of human impact, something students can learn about on the park’s Leave No Trace page. After learning about all the ways people impact the park, students can communicate what they have learned through creating posters or short videos.

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