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National Park Service Ups STEM

The National Park Service, steward of mountain ranges and monuments, has ramped up its STEM education programs with the aim of reaching a quarter of America’s students through real and virtual field trips.

NPS, which offers teachers a wealth of resources, including a searchable collection of activities, curriculum and professional development, has hosted more than 1 million children over the past 40 years at residential field-science programs in four West Coast parks: Yosemite, Golden Gate, Olympic, and the Santa Monica Mountains.

As Education Week reported, the the program expanded to the East Coast with the help of a $4 million grant from Google Inc., to set up camp in the Prince William National Park, about 40 minutes outside the nation’s capital.

Many state park systems also offer STEM-focused experiences. California’s Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students (PORTS), for example, is a free distance-learning program that uses Skype, Google hangouts, and other interactive technologies to overcome the barriers of time and cost and connect classrooms with on-site rangers, scientists, and other experts. There are also project-based learning units, such as caring for kelp in Point Lobos.

Hands-on science education and informal, out-of-school experiences are considered key to helping students understand the connections between actions and impact on the environment or society. “In creating schools that are optimized for academic learning, we’ve created environments that interfere with learning about the natural world,” Daniel Edelson, vice president for education at the National Geographic and a member of the advisory council that helped devise the education framework for NatureBridge, a residential field-science program on California’s Marin Headlands in partnership with NPS. “We need to create opportunities for students to learn about the environment through firsthand experiences. This means getting them out of school buildings in order to observe and experience the natural world.”

A sampling of those opportunities includes the Adobe Engineering Challenge pre- and post-visit activities to Tumacacori National Historic Park in Arizona, and using professional surveying equipment to plot beach topography and study barrier-island dynamics at Assateague Island National Seashore in Virginia.

The NPS initiative isn’t the only federal program to expand STEM and environmental awareness.

Some 32 states, the District of Columbia, and Department of Defense school now participate in the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools program to recognize exemplary schools that promote environmentally friendly practices and encourage environmental literacy. In 2015, the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, framework included environmental awareness and climate change questions on the science section.

For a truly stunning look at STEM in the national parks, check out the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs video series called America the Beautiful.” Many of the videos document how scientists are working to preserve the American landscape, from citizen bat research in Kentucky caves, to a pygmy mammoth discovery in the Channel Islands of California, to the mysteries of the ancient Hopewell earth mounds in Ohio. Click HERE to see the series on YouTube.

Exploring Southern California’s kelp forests via Skype may not be as cool as walking a real shoreline. Still, it beats contemplating posters on the wall of a classroom.

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