“I [couldn’t] believe I was getting paid for this,” says Eric Riemer, fourth- and fifth-grade science teacher at Park City Elementary School in Park City, Kentucky, of his experience this past summer as a National Park Service (NPS) Teacher Ranger Teacher (TRT). Riemer, who was a TRT at Mammoth Cave National Park in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, maintains that for TRTs, “a day at the office can be really fun!”
K–12 educators serving as TRTs spend 4–6 weeks learning about the resources and educational materials available through the NPS and enhancing their teaching with NPS-based science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education resources and the use of primary sources and place-based learning. TRTs also take an online graduate course through the University of Colorado Denver, for which they earn three graduate credits in experiential learning, and receive a $3,000 stipend after completing the program. The graduate credits earned are in experiential learning because “the NPS has cultural resource– and natural resource–based parks, and participating teachers have science and social studies backgrounds. We needed a course that is relevant to both fields,” explains Linda Rosenblum, the program’s national coordinator.
TRT benefits STEM teachers because “they can develop relationships with parks in their geographic area, learn about educational programs for students, and engage with real-life scientific data,” she contends. Teachers and students can do citizen science activities, “gathering data a park can use in an ongoing resource management program” that involves monitoring climate change, wildlife, water quality, weather patterns, and other scientific areas, says Rosenblum.
As a TRT, Riemer says he worked “to correlate NGSS [Next Generation Science Standards] with environmental education programs offered both at [Mammoth Cave] and in schools across the region.” He led summer camps for elementary and middle level students at the park. “We did a lot of cool activities and went in the cave almost every day…We did cave surveying using [tools like] inclinometers and compasses to find points in the cave and see how [scientists] map caves,” he reports.
“I learned more tools to extend my classroom beyond the four walls,” says Riemer, and appreciated “going underground when it was 100 degrees outside and feeling a sense of history, wonder, and curiosity.”
Hannah VanScotter, grades 6–11 science teacher at Jefferson Montessori Academy in Carlsbad, New Mexico, was a 2018 TRT at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Salt Flat, Texas. As part of her work there, she created a geology interpretive backpack series that teachers can use “to help students learn about the park within the park,” she explains. Each of the three backpacks connects with a different trail and contains “a jump drive with hands-on activities, lesson plans, PowerPoints, and a field guide and geologist tools such as a hand lens,” she relates. “Each trail is tied to a different grade level—high school, middle school, and elementary—and an aspect of NGSS,” she adds.
The Devil’s Hall trail, for example, is located along a slot canyon—a narrow canyon formed by the wear of water rushing through rock—and its backpack “teaches how a landscape can change with the effects of water,” VanScotter notes. She says she appreciates that as a TRT, she was “able to be creative with the project,” and the program “lets you tailor it to your background and discipline,” in her case, geology.
Jennifer Taylor, former sixth-grade science teacher at Estes Park Middle School in Estes Park, Colorado, was the first TRT at Estes Park’s Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in 2005. Taylor says she “jumped at the chance” because as a new teacher, she “wanted to learn ways to bring project-based learning and place-based learning into the classroom.”
Taylor had participated in her school’s annual sixth-grade field trip to RMNP, but what she learned as a TRT “helped me make the field trip deeper and more meaningful for my students,” she contends. “The students did citizen science–type fieldwork to learn about elk and monitor the impacts elk have on the park, simulating what a resource manager does.”
At the end of the field trip, Taylor’s students examined “six different plans to manage the park’s elk population, and based on what they learned in the field,…[recommended] which one the park should [implement],” she relates. “The experience broadened students’ understanding of the importance of our parks and what rangers do. [They learned] rangers help educate people, and they can also do research.”
Ron Roskelly, sixth-grade science teacher at Lake City Middle School in Lake City, Tennessee, was a 2018 TRT at Obed Wild and Scenic River in Wartburg, Tennessee. Noting that Tennessee’s new science standards, which support NGSS, will be implemented this year, Roskelly says activities like working with rangers to identify and cut down invasive tree species, helping children test water for macroinvertebrates, and learning about science careers he wasn’t familiar with, such as in hydrology, “let me see the new Tennessee science curriculum in person and get hands-on experience with [it].”
In addition, the TRT online course increased his knowledge of “the history of the parks and how to preserve the area…I’m really going to buy in to [place-based education] this year,” he observes.
As a TRT, Roskelly says he built relationships with the Obed community and with rangers. “I can have the rangers I met come to my class,” he notes. “I want to do more outdoors and take more field trips to local parks to get students excited about science.”
Teachers of other subjects also value the program. Christine Gish, special education teacher at John F. Kennedy (JFK) High School’s STEM Academy in Paterson, New Jersey, was a 2018 TRT at Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park (NHP). Last year, she relates, “I became involved with a group of students and science teachers working with the NPS on an event called Batter Up! We incorporated anatomy, physiology, engineering, and history in an event to teach students about the Negro Baseball Leagues, [baseball playing], [and] integration of baseball and the Civil Rights Movement.” Paterson Great Falls NHP, she adds, includes “Hinchliffe Stadium, one of the few remaining stadiums where Negro League Baseball was played.”
In this summer’s Batter Up! event, JFK STEM students taught younger students about anatomy and physiology as they batted balls in the batting cage, learning about “muscle movement, muscle memory, and reaction time,” says Gish. For the physics portion, the younger students took turns running bases and calculated the velocity of the runs. JFK STEM students had them compare “what the [velocity was when the] average high school baseball player ran to [the velocity of] what players in the major leagues ran,” she explains.
Gish hopes to develop Batter Up! into a portable classroom display that teachers and rangers can use. “The TRT program made me want to take this to the next level,” she maintains.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.
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