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National Park Service Ups STEM

The National Park Service, steward of mountain ranges and monuments, plans to ramp 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 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. This spring, Education Week reports, the the program will expand 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.

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.”

The NPS initiative isn’t the only federal program to expand STEM and environmental awareness. Some 33 states and the District of Columbia recently pledged to participate in the U.S. Department of Education’s new Green Ribbon Schools program to recognize exemplary schools that promote environmentally friendly practices and encourage environmental literacy. By 2015, the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, will include an optional exam on the subject.

The National Park Service and its partners may be in the vanguard of the movement to promote environmental literacy. Education Week reports that a memorandum of understanding is currently in the works between the Education Department and the U.S. Department of the Interior, which manages the National Park Service, to collaborate on education goals around teacher development and STEM, among other subjects, using outdoor classrooms and spaces. In addition, part of NPS’s  strategic plan leading up to the agency’s 100th anniversary in 2016 call for expanding education programs for a quarter of America’s schoolchildren through real and virtual field trips, teacher professional development, and more partnerships with organizations like NatureBridge to provide programs at their 394 parks or similar sites. Park Service leaders hope to supply free transportation to nearly 100,000 students annually and leverage digital learning and social media as a way to reach more children.

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

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