Learning by Day and Night at Badlands National Park

Emily KaminField Notes
Golden sunlight hitting the sandstone cliffs and hills of Badlands National Park
— National Park Service

South Dakota’s Badlands National Park is a place of majestic beauty and natural wonder. Its steep canyons and colossal spires seem like they were molded by hand and its layered rocks painted by brush. And hidden in its geological deposits are the fossils of ancient creatures like the saber-toothed cat and three-toed horse.

Nowadays its prairie grasslands are home to animals like bison, sheep, coyotes, and prairie dogs. And when these animals go to sleep at night, a more mysterious and elusive group of insects and animals awaken to inhabit the land under the cover of darkness. These two sides of the park’s wildlife, in addition to the incredible fossils, create a wealth of fodder for learning.

Three students in the prairie grass of Badlands National Park carrying big bug nets on a field trip at this National Park Service unit in South Dakota
National Park Service

Badlands National Park’s educational program, “It’s Like Day & Night,” brought science curriculum to life for over 200 students at one of South Dakota’s most inspiring outdoor classrooms. Students from nearby Jackson County explored the basic ecology and ecosystem of the park’s grasslands firsthand, while answering the question: “How do animals adapt, survive, and thrive in Badlands National Park?”

The program included three field trips, including one overnight camping trip at the park. In March of 2018, students from local elementary and middle schools participated in a day-long field trip where they kept nature journals, explored the Cliff Shelf Trail, and utilized field guides to observe animal tracks and scat.

A national park ranger, a teacher, and a student, inspecting a specimen under a field microscope in the prairies of Badlands National Park
National Park Service

While hiking the trail, park rangers helped students make several discoveries. One group of students discovered rodent jaws in the scat of a coyote. Another group spotted a fossilized turtle buried in the rock of one of the park’s iconic formations.

A student observing a specimen in a container and looking on his phone app
National Park Service

During the fall semester of 2018, students in pre-K through 6th grade spent the day at Badlands National Park studying its insects and arachnids. They learned about the anatomy of these creatures and their special adaptations. Then park rangers led them into the field to collect and identify insects and other organisms. They then recorded their findings using the iNaturalist app on tablets or iPhones. This app allows citizen scientists to record their encounters with organisms and connect with experts who can identify their discoveries. Meanwhile, the youngest participants learned how to determine an insect’s favorite hiding place and then discovered doodle bugs under rocks, butterflies perched on tall grasses, and ants marching along the ground.

Students and a park ranger at night with red headlamps looking at educational material during the Badlands Bats program at Badlands National Park in South Dakota
National Park Service

For many, the highlight of the program was the overnight camping trip. Once darkness settled in, the older students set up LED lights and an apparatus to attract and capture insects. They then examined and identified the critters, before adding them to their data sets. Later, an NPS ranger-led the Badlands Bats program, which covered echolocation and basic bat ecology. The students used a bat detector app to locate bats flying through the air and listened to them as they flew by.

Badlands National Park’s natural beauty, rich geological history, and diversity of species make it the ideal outdoor classroom. This field trip, and many others, are made possible through grants from the National Park Foundation. The result? Students deepening their understanding of their classroom curriculum and immersing themselves in the wonder of a #FindYourPark/#EncuentraTuParque trip.

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