Imagine a learning experience that goes beyond science and is emotionally, personally, and socially valuable. Maybe that's why this student created his own 14-minute video, uploaded it to YouTube, and then shared it with his friends on social media even though there was never a requirement to do so.
Imagine how much more fun and effective it is to teach about glaciers and climate change when you're standing above Kenai Fjords' Exit Glacier on a trail or watching Aialik and Pedersen Glaciers from a kayak. Even better - what about showing them from a flightseeing tour? If it's more fun to teach in those environments, you can bet that it's more fun to learn in those environments too!
The national parks are currently being celebrated as America's Best Idea and I am a believer in that. The parks offer such a wide variety of content areas to teach about and it goes way beyond science and tap into the emotional and personal dimensions as well.
Not only are the national parks America's Best Idea, but they might be out best classrooms as well.
Background: Since 2007, I have organized and led trips to different national parks around the country for students at Emmaus High School. The primary goals of the trips were to increase environmental awareness, stewardship, and attendance to sites managed by the National Park Service. Located in Eastern Pennsylvania, our students are not given enough opportunities to enjoy the national parks since there are none within 300 miles of our school. Since the first trip to Denali and Kenai Fjords National Parks in 2007, more than 200 students have visited various national parks on multi-day trips around the United States of America.
For me personally and professionally, one of the most exciting projects I ever became involved with was my research through Oregon State University as a graduate student in their Free-Choice Learning Program. With the field trips I organized, students had been informally reporting value in this trips for several years, but it was uncertain as to how and why. They claimed they were learning, but I did not fully understand what they were learning and how long the effects lasted. Overall, I wanted to know what the overall influence of these trips on those students.
Through student surveys, parent surveys, and interviews with students, I found that there were long-term impacts resulting from these trips to national parks. In this post, I would like to share the impacts and specifically how the trips changed the futures of these students.
What happens in the future?
Unlike the students pictured above, I never went to a single national park before the age of 21. I had no idea just how much was out there and what nature had to offer. When I saw Olympic and Mt. Rainier National Parks for the first time, I was hooked. The grandeur and diversity of those parks got my attention immediately. When I went to Denali and Kenai Fjords for the first time, there was a deeper connection and all I can remember is thinking to myself, 'I need to share this place with others,' and that's why I brought a group of students there in 2007.
Since then, I have learned that a lot of great things are resulting from these trips to national parks, but the results are as wild and unpredictable as Denali's weather and wildlife. To show that, consider the 2008 group pictured above. Here's a closer look at this group:
I surveyed former students who went on trips of mine lasting at least 5 days to national parks between 2007 and 2012. Of the students who responded to the surveys, 61% reported some degree of change in their future careers with regards to college major, career path, future location, or coursework.
One area of significance that became apparent with the data is the relationship between the age of a student when he/she went on his/her first trip and the influence the trip had on their future. All of the former students who responded to this survey went on their first trip between the ages of 14 to 19 years old. 95% of the former students who indicated that the trip affected or reinforced their college major or career path went on their first trip at the age of 17 or under. If the goal is to affect or reinforce college major or career path, get kids to national parks at an impressionable age.
Before and After
In 2013, while I was still conducting most of my research, I also had an Alaska trip to plan. I decided to interview 5 students from that group before and after they made the trip. All of these students were 18 years old at the time of the interviews and never made a trip with me to national parks prior to this. Therefore, they would fall under the subgroup of those making their first trip at the age of 18. None of the 5 students interviewed mentioned a career or college major change, which further reinforces the results from the online surveys. Despite this, one of the students wants to study abroad in the future, another would like to work in Denali in the summer months with the sled dogs, and another girl discussed how her life would have been different if she went on this trip earlier. She said, “I 100% believe that if I would have gone on this trip before I swore into the Navy, I would be going back to Alaska instead.”
Becoming More Involved in the Outdoors
The most highly supported result from my research is that these field trips are effective in getting the students more involved in nature. 96% of the former students indicated that the trip was either “effective” to some degree or reported an increase in involvement in nature in a variety of ways. The interviews and parent surveys also unanimously supported this idea. This strongly suggests that a student going on a national parks trip will experience a trip that encourages involvement with nature afterwards and just going to the national parks may have been enough.
What This Has Meant For Me
I am very fortunate. I teach in a school that has supported me the last 10 years leading place-based educational experiences in some wild locations. It is the most fulfilling and exciting part of my job. However, when I take students to Alaska's Denali and Kenai Fjords, the parks do most of the teaching. The national parks contain the most beautiful scenery in the country and in many places, it showcases nature the way it was meant to be. All branches of science are connected there and science is even connected with other subjects. My role in all of this is build and design the best experience for the students. It has turned into my calling, my duty and obligation to students, and the most fulfilling aspect of my job. My advice is to give it a shot. Take advantage of the national parks. They just might spark a change in the lives of you and your students.
Mike Mihalik is an Earth & Space Science teacher at Emmaus High School in Emmaus, PA. He has a M.Ed. in Educational Administration and M.S. in Science Education, with a specialization in Free-Choice Learning. In addition to teaching in the classroom, Mike organizes and leads annual field trips to national parks as part of place-based learning or environmental education program.