Editor's note: Much time has been spent discussing ways to engage youth with the national parks. At Acadia National Park, staff worked with Friends of Acadia to bring a team of teenagers into the park last summer to explore how technology could enhance a visitor's experience in the park, without replacing any of the traditional interpretation methods. Aimee Beal Church, the communications and outreach coordinator of the friends group, assessed the teens' work in the following article that appeared first in Friends of Acadia Journal. It is reprinted here with permission.
Picture this: you’re nearing a mountaintop in Acadia, hiking up a trail of pink granite ledge with glorious views of unspoiled forest reaching down to a sparkling, island-dotted sea. Maybe a peregrine falcon wheels overhead.
Approaching the classic wooden sign marking the summit, you see four teenagers sitting with heads down and eyes glued to the screen of an iPad on his or her lap. What do you think? Maybe you feel sorry for the kids, for their apparent lack of connection to the natural beauty around them. Maybe you’re annoyed to be reminded of the “outside world.” Maybe you wonder, “Hey, can I get a cell phone signal up here?”
Then one of them hops up and approaches you with a smile, and you notice that her T-shirt reads Acadia Youth Technology Team. This past summer, those four teenagers were MDI high school students Audyn Curless, Sophia Krevans, Ryann Rourk, and Liam Torrey. Along with Team Leader Colin MacArthur, Assistant Team Leader John Carll, and volunteer contributing scholar Fabio Fraticelli, they spent 10 weeks learning, brainstorming, and experimenting with technology like iPads, digital cameras, smart phones, webcams, QR codes, apps, and the like.
They thought about how these programs and devices might enhance a visitor’s experience— especially young visitors for whom technology is an integral and familiar part of their world. Much of that work was done outside in Acadia, where they also spoke with dozens of visitors about their use of technology in the park. The Acadia Youth Technology Team was jointly funded by Friends of Acadia and Acadia National Park, motivated by the park’s commitment to engage youth in their national parks and the natural world.
As Superintendent Sheridan Steele notes, “According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids under age 18 are spending more than 7.5 hours per day, or more than 50 hours per week, using electronic media. What will happen to national parks when people don’t have time for nature and the real world outdoors?”
By reframing technology as a portal into the park rather than a barrier, and asking youth directly what they find most interesting, the park can create new and uniquely effective tools to awaken kids, teenagers, and young adults to the treasures of Acadia.
Lynne Dominy, chief of interpretation at Acadia, knew this would be a challenge. She had been researching similar initiatives in other national parks to find a model for a youth-focused and youth-powered “think tank.” She found nothing, so she and the interpretive staff designed the project from scratch.
In addition to providing meaningful insights into how to engage youth using technology, this pilot program creates a model for how the Park Service — at Acadia and elsewhere — can work with youth on similar questions.
Through a $25,000 gift made in honor of FOA’s 25th anniversary, Friends of Acadia hired the four teen interns and assistant team leader and purchased the iPads and apps necessary for their research.
Says Marla O’Byrne, president of Friends of Acadia, “We were fortunate to gather such a talented, energetic team of young people, and delighted to support this innovative pilot project that is so important for the future of the park.”
FOA funding was matched by the park, which hired the team leader and organized and hosted the program. The team was immersed in the park visitor experience, from which they generated ideas about how technology could meet two park-wide goals: engaging youth in Acadia and improving the visitor experience.
Each week focused on a particular sort of technology or electronic media. Their days might begin with a ranger-led program or hike, continue with a discussion of the place’s meanings, deepen with visitor interviews, and conclude with brainstorming technology project ideas.
At the end of each week, the team hosted a meeting to gather feedback from park and Friends of Acadia personnel.
At the end of the summer, the team produced a 72-page report including specific proposals for technology projects, including cost breakdowns and incremental development stages where appropriate. The proposals range in scope, from easy— such as enabling FourSquare.com checkins at park locations that already have wireless access—to ambitious—such as creating a comprehensive web-based database of information about Acadia that includes park-generated and user-generated content, accessible via QR codes placed on existing wayside signs throughout the park.
The team also developed general principles that should guide the park in any new technology project. They wrote, “Any time we use technology to interact with the public…we should use technology to meet key park goals….The technology we use should facilitate, not replace or discourage, experiences with the trails, plants, artifacts, animals and people of the park….We should not assume providing youth with technology engages them in the park. Instead, we should always specify the specific way youth-targeted technology will encourage stewardship.”
The plan states that any technology project should include such key ingredients as involvement of target audiences and park staff and provisions for maintaining the project. An appendix to the report includes a map of cell phone reception along the roads on MDI and the Schoodic Peninsula, which the team created by driving around and checking reception every half mile.
The report was completed by the time team members returned to school, but the project doesn’t end there. The park already has plans to begin implementing the report’s proposals as budgeting allows. Two proposals may be taken on by MDI High School Students during the current school year for their “Senior Exhibition” service-learning projects.
Says Lynne Dominy, “Service learning is a terrific resource for Acadia, because it’s a fully supported program already in place in area schools—the students are required to do it, and their service is free to the park. And, park staff is more than happy to host these young stewards of our park resources.”
One potential project open to this spring’s seniors is to help the park set up several digital video cameras and use them to host a competition for by-youth, for-youth videos about Acadia. Another project would involve working with the park’s Raptor Rangers to set up a “digital media interpretation kit,” including a digiscope adapter and 24” television screen, to be attached to one of the high-powered scopes at the base of Champlain Mountain. This will allow many more visitors to view a live feed of the peregrine falcons nesting along the Precipice Trail, and allow rangers to show interpretive slideshows and recorded footage of the falcons on foggy days.
Next summer, the park hopes to hire a “2012 youth team” to continue to implement selected youth-driven projects. For park youth coordinator Ardrianna McLane, “This pilot project has opened the door to stronger connections with the high school, new youth leadership opportunities, and a greater emphasis upon youth-generated programming with the park.”
Engaged Park Stewards
Throughout all this, the team explored the native plants in the Wild Gardens of Acadia, participated in a bio blitz at the Schoodic Education and Research Center, took a cruise to Baker Island, hiked miles of trails and carriage roads, and more. They met with park employees, researchers, and visitors to see the park from different perspectives.
Liam, Ryann, Sophia, and Audyn already shared a fond familiarity with Acadia, but all agreed that the summer greatly deepened their connection to the park and their understanding of its value and vulnerabilities. In fact, the Acadia Youth Technology Team was itself a highly successful program to engage youth as stewards of Acadia. The four local high school students took great pride in the idea that their work would truly benefit the park.
Said Ryann, “Being a member of the Youth Technology Team has truly been a once in a lifetime opportunity and a dream summer job for a person my age. I’ve enjoyed traveling about the park, seeing places I’ve never seen, learning about the park, and working with motivated people. But, the thing I’ve enjoyed most is being a part of and contributing to a master plan of ideas and suggestions of how the park can integrate technology into their programs in nonintrusive ways.”
Audyn added, “I am convinced that the work we did this summer will have a lasting impact on the park.” Some team members expressed interest in working in the park service in the future.
For Liam, “working in National Parks in the future has gone from a minute possibility to a hope and aspiration.” Of course, one needn’t be a park employee to be a park steward!
Sophia observed, “Living here, I have always used the park, but simply as an enormous, very well kept backyard. Throughout this summer, as I have gained more and more knowledge about the park, I have developed a deeper respect for the cultural and geological history of the landscape as well as the way the park is run and maintained. Working in the park made me realize what an important resource Acadia is and why it is imperative to protect it for the next generation.”
Aimee Beal Church is the communications and outreach coordinator at Friends of Acadia.