The Living Classrooms of the National Park System
Editor's note: We often hear about how valuable national parks can be as "outdoor classrooms." That point is driven home in the following guest column by Seth Shteir, the California Desert Field Representative for the National Parks Conservation Association. In it he follows a fourth-grade teacher and her students into the Mojave National Preserve where they encounter the wonders of the arid landscape.
Most teachers would be happy to keep their students as far away from scorpions as possible. But not Cameron Elementary School teacher Sheryl Marino. Marino and her fourth-grade class from Barstow, California, spent two days in June learning about the Chemehuevi Indians, desert animals, climate change, and even searching for scorpions at the National Park Service’s remote Desert Studies Center as part of the Mojave Outdoor Education Program.
Experiential programs such as this one that get students out into our national parks require innovation, planning and financial support. Sadly, with the National Park Service and our schools both facing tight budgets, not all of our school children are fortunate enough to participate. The National Park Service needs increased financial support to keep innovative educational programs like the Mojave Outdoor Education Program going, and through enhanced partnership with the Department of Education, could offer such programs to more students nationwide.
Anybody who has ever observed an experiential National Park Service Program would understand why this type of education is important. Elementary school teacher Marino knows that when her students feel the crunch of mineral deposits as they trek across Soda Lake; smell the pungent creosote bush after a desert rain; eat roasted pinyon nuts like the Native Americans did hundreds of years ago, and marvel at the mountains and washes that punctuate this arid country—the lessons will stick with them far longer than if they’d simply learned about the Mojave desert from books and videos.
Beneath the shade of a large tamarisk tree, Mojave National Preserve Chief of Interpretation Linda Slater showed the eager fourth graders how to make rope from yucca fiber and played a tape of authentic Chemehuevi Indian language. Ranger Dora McKeever roasted pinyon nuts and chia seeds for the children to eat while gazing at distant sand dunes, much like the Mojave Indians did generations ago.
It was Desert Studies Center Manager Rob Fulton who led the children into the darkness that night to search for scorpions on a sandy flat. The scorpions glowed like magical jewels under the children’s ultraviolet lights and Fulton used small tongs to safely lift scorpions into a small viewing dish where the children could observe them.
And what of the children? They were enthralled with the Mojave Desert—this land where the horizon caresses the steep bajadas and tops of mountains. I took the children on a hike atop Cima Dome, the largest and densest Joshua tree forest in the world, where they learned about the plants and animals that inhabit this fragile ecosystem. “What type of cactus is this?” called out one excited student, pointing to a formidable cholla along the trail. It didn’t take long for them to conclude that the spines were a natural fortress, guarding the nests of cactus wrens from hungry predators.
This is real education. It’s not about filling in blanks or shading in bubbles. It’s not about giving the right answer. It’s about finding wonder in the world and asking questions. And that’s exactly why students and teachers find experiential education enjoyable, intellectually stimulating, and meaningful.
The Park Service views its 393 units as living classrooms from the Gettysburg battlefield to Grinnell glacier in Glacier National Park. It’s through the heroic efforts of our park rangers that the rich story of America’s history and natural wonders is told to some 275 million visitors a year. Yet the Park Service needs increased financial support to make sure that future generations can experience programs like the Mojave Outdoor Education Program.
What does funding mean in human terms- in the eyes of a child from Barstow- one of the ten poorest cities in California? It’s funding that allows Chief of Interpretation Slater to hire the bus company that brings the children 200 miles roundtrip from Barstow out to the Mojave National Preserve; that purchases healthy meals for the children; that buys educational materials like weaving materials, and that permits highly trained rangers, like Dora McKeever, to inspire the children.
To stand beneath the starry sky in the middle of the Mojave National Preserve is to be humbled by the vastness of space; to marvel at the rocky landscape and to think about cultures that came before us. For Sheryl Marino’s fourth-grade students, it is a chance to look for scorpions in the darkness and contemplate their place in the natural world. Let’s make sure that by 2016, on its hundredth birthday, the Mojave Outdoor Education Program and other National Park Service educational programs are still going strong. It’s an investment we can’t afford to postpone.
Seth Shteir works as California Desert Field Representative for the National Parks Conservation Association in Joshua Tree, California.