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Celebrating Informal STEM Education & Learning in America’s National Parks

August 18, 2016

John Muir wrote in the preface to his 1901 book Our National Parks, “...I have done the best I could to show forth the beauty, grandeur, and all-embracing usefulness of our wild mountain forest reservations and parks, with a view to inciting the people to come and enjoy them, and get them into their hearts, that so at length their preservation and right use might be made sure.” We can sense his awe and wonderment of America’s wild places, and his thoughts on the place people had in enjoying and learning from the National Parks. More than one hundred years have passed since John Muir’s publication, but his enthusiasm and love of the parks lives on in the creativity that drove many projects to engage learners of all ages and backgrounds within these natural laboratories. To celebrate the National Park Service Centennial we bring you a resource roundup of informal STEM education projects that have focused on national parks, and/or have been developed in collaboration with the National Park Service.   

ParksApp NE Ohio: Informal Learning in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park

In this collaborative project between Kent State University, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and the Cleveland MetroParks (NSF Award #1422764), investigators developed a mobile application to provide visitors with an immersive, informal learning experience. Visitors can access information as they explore geologic and historic landscapes, and as they encounter plants and animals. One of the research questions the project aimed to address was, “What contributions does a GPS-based mobile application have on informal science learning as understood within the Six Strands of Informal Science Learning?” The mobile application is currently available to view and download at, http://parkapps.kent.edu/.

Interpreters and Scientists Working On Our National Parks (iSWOOP)

The goal of this current collaborative research project (NSF Award #1514776) is to establish a model for how national parks can be resources for science education and learning, especially by communicating active research being done within the parks. The project accomplishes its goal in part by recruiting scientists to be part of professional development for park rangers, and encouraging park rangers to incorporate current research into public programs and to use discourse strategies to foster inquiry within visitors. The project is active in six national parks: Acadia, Boston Harbor Islands, Carlsbad Caverns, Indiana Dunes, Jean Lafitte, and Joshua Tree. Results from a research study in Carlsbad Caverns is available on the poster the project investigators submitted to InformalScience.org

Pathways to BioTrails: DNA-Assisted Species Identification for Citizen Science

This project (NSF Award #1223210) partnered MDI Biological Laboratory, the National Park Service, and the Schoodic Education and Research Center Institute located in Acadia National Park. The goal was to establish practices for combining citizen science with DNA-based species identification (DNA barcoding) to scale-up and improve the accuracy of research projects that monitor animal and plant species as they respond to climate and environmental changes. Adult volunteers learned how to observe, measure, and collect specimens from scientists. 
To learn more about BioTrails, you can use InformalScience.org to access their poster from the 2014 AISL PI Meeting

Trail of Time: A Geoscience Exhibition at Grand Canyon National Park

This project funded from 2006 to 2011 (NSF Award # 0610393) brought together the University of New Mexico, Arizona State University and the National Park Service to create a 4-km walking trail along the south rim of the Grand Canyon designed to give visitors an appreciation of geologic time. An evaluation of visitor experiences showed the trail inspired visitors to think and talk about the canyon’s rocks and ages of the rocks, and facilitated social interactions within some groups. A spotlight of the project published in 2012, and the summative evaluation are available to view. 

California Environmental Legacy Project

This project was funded from 2009 to 2013 (NSF Award #0840339) to create programs, a website, and a public television documentary that would communicate the past, present, and future of California’s changing environment. The project partners included California State Parks, the National Park Service, and U.S. Geological Survey. To learn more about the project, and the documentary Becoming California, visit the following website, http://www.calegacy.org/

Earth to Sky Interagency Partnership

Funded by a series of NASA grants, and the Earth Science Division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, this project brought together NASA, the National Park Service (NPS), US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the University of California, Berkeley. The partnership worked to actively foster collaborative work between the science and interpretation/education communities of NPS, USFWS and NASA, to ultimately enrich the experiences of millions of visitors to national parks, refuges, and other protected areas. To learn more, visit their website http://www.earthtosky.org/

Connecting Cultures: Engaging Latinos in Informal Science Education

Environment for the Americas (EFTA), in partnership with the National Park Service and Colorado State University, received a grant in 2009 (NSF Award #0840233) to study the barriers to participation in nature and science programs for Latino/Hispanic audiences. The project goals were threefold: to identify and reduce barriers to Latinos/Hispanics participation in informal education, to provide effective tools to assist educators in connecting Latino/Hispanic families with science education; and to broadly disseminate these tools to agencies and organizations who wish to engage Latino/Hispanic audiences in informal science education. For more information on the project goals, results, and resources, visit the website http://birdday.org/connectcultures/connecting-cultures-research-, and download the key findings from the project

Salmon Camp

From 2007 to 2011 the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), in partnership with the Native American Youth Association (NAYA), Intel Oregon, the National Park Service, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, expanded the existing Salmon Camp Research Team (SCRT), a youth-based Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) project that focused on Native American and Alaskan Native youth in middle and high school (NSF Award #705040). The project used natural resource management as a theme to integrate science and technology and provide students with opportunities to explore local ecosystems, access traditional American Indian/Native Alaskan knowledge, and work closely with researchers and natural resource professionals. The project evaluation report is available for download on InformalScience.org. 

What are your informal learning experiences in National Parks? Please share in the comments section below.


image credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service