The Living Classrooms of the National Park System

One of the often-talked about, but not always observed, is the use of national parks as outdoor classrooms. This group of 4th graders learned more about the natural world during a visit to Mojave National Preserve. Photo by Seth Shteir.

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.

Comments

Ms. Sheryl Marino is such a wonderful example.
Students will be eager to participate and look forward to their 'new' classroom.
This type of educational approach should be encouraged, or they can also ask the parents or their guardians get involved on this extraordinary field trip.

Nice story, and a nice example of how investments in the parks are actual investments: money spent towards a future return.

When my fourth and fifth grade class from Snowville, Ut were the first class to experience Yellowstone's remarkable "Expedition YELLOWSTONE" clear back in 1986, we had a chance to attend school for a full week at Lamar. It was an absolutely incredible experience for students and parents. Joe Zarki, who is now chief of interp at Joshua Tree, was one of our ranger/teachers.

Subsequent trips depended upon literally winning a lottery because the program was so popular.

I'm afraid that program no longer exists. And what a shame that is, because those kids -- who now have children of their own approaching fourth grade age -- came away with something priceless. They still talk about the experience.

And remember, these were ranch kids from Utah where the environmental ethic: "Multiply, multiply and pillage the earth" is very strong. Perhaps if one of them ever replaces some of our Neanderthal legislators -- particularly Rob Bishop -- there might be a bit of hope for some rational legislative action regarding environmental concerns.

I have served as a Park Ranger and Naturalist. I learned if you want anyone to remember something, you have to impact them emotional to the information.

When I was about 8, I remember meeting my first NPS Park Ranger. His persona and professionalism made me feel like I was important and his had a lasting impact. Standing in the national park when we met him, enhanced the positive impact.
After the experience, I better understood what it must have been like to live in the 1800's around a grist mill. I still remember!

Parks have a feeling that is so unique and most times, can not be duplicated.