National parks are some of the world's largest outdoor classrooms, creating pathways for kids to enjoy, understand, and connect with nature, history, and culture. With the recent growth and shift to online learning, many schools and parks have adjusted in-park programming like Open OutDoors for Kids, a National Park Foundation program that provides national park field trips for fourth grade students. We recently sat down with Katie Nyberg, Executive Director of the Mississippi Park Connection, who saw an opportunity in the moment to provide online learning resources to young park enthusiasts and their families.
Stepping Up to the Challenge
Earlier in 2020, the Mississippi Park Connection successfully collaborated with the education team at Mississippi National River and Recreation Area to introduce a new program that engaged students through outdoor winter learning. Through their partnership, elementary school-age children explored the park’s many activities that can be enjoyed in sub-zero temperatures. Soon thereafter, the park began prepping for a busy spring season with a record number of registrations for the park’s hugely popular Big River Journey programs, which connect kids with the science and heritage of the Mississippi River.
And then we were all hit with navigating the new reality that the COVID-19 pandemic was presenting. As we took precautions and began limiting in-person education at school districts near the park, we knew we wanted to support the park’s education team in providing new opportunities for distance learning. We began by asking local teachers what they needed, surveying teachers in and around the Twin Cities. The teachers provided helpful feedback, including the desire to maintain their connections with the park. Teachers in need of distance learning tools were looking for slide decks, pre-recorded videos, interactive lessons and digital tools like websites, and were specifically in need of content related to STEM subjects, including ecosystems, water, and science activities.
Taking Partnerships Online
The team at Mississippi National River and Recreation Area relies on strong organizational partners like Mississippi Park Connection to deliver great school programs. Thanks to the support of the National Park Foundation and Union Pacific Railroad and an existing partnership with Hamline University’s Center for Global Environmental Education (CGEE), we were able to pivot the park’s educational programs to distance learning by the end of April. An interactive website both mimicked and supplemented the park’s riverboat learning stations, normally used in-person through the park’s field trip program. The website was an instant success, serving 7,000 users and attracting a broad audience from around the nation and other parts of the world. The site will continue to be a valuable resource well beyond the pandemic. Supplementing the in-park program, the website gives students access to the park prior to their field trips, gaining a feel for what they will experience live on the river.
“The website helps us maintain local education community engagement, but it also expands the park’s reach, and the park is excited to continue its development,” says Mississippi National River and Recreation Area Ranger Lyndon Torstenson. “In this unprecedented time we are serving an urgent need to assist teachers and students through distance learning. I’m very excited to build on this success, and continue our work on site accessibility, greater inclusion of partners and diverse stories! I expect this site to be well used for years to come.”
Virtual Class Visits
Missing from the website was an opportunity to connect directly about the river with a park ranger – one of the key elements of any in-park visit. So, in May and June, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area Ranger, Brian Goodspeed, and a team of education rangers decided to address this gap by creating online classroom visits through video conferencing.
“As a park ranger, I have the pleasure to visit and speak with elementary classrooms. Students naturally enjoy visitors to their schools, and the Mississippi River touches America’s best stories,” said Goodspeed. “Teachers informed us that they value classroom visits, and we were already in the process of arranging classroom visits when the pandemic arrived. Online meetings were a new concept to most of us, but even so, it seemed like a good fit for visiting classrooms. Suddenly we could visit multiple schools per day and ignore travel time.”
The online classroom visits have proved popular throughout the spring, and as the park prepares for the fall, the rangers plan to ramp up their virtual classroom visits to Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts as well.
Supporting Teachers in Times of Distance Learning
Thanks to the support from our partners, we at the Mississippi Park Connection were able to proceed with our second year of the Great River Educator Teacher Workshop. In coordination with the park’s entire education team in an early July video conference, teachers were given a chance to reflect on their year and learn more about the newly developed park education program opportunities. Teachers could experience lesson demonstrations utilizing the park’s new educational assets, and further understand how the park could help them and their students in the upcoming fall term. As part of the workshop, some teachers even came to the park to paddle the river by kayak in small, safely distanced groups.
As distance learning continues into the new school year, teachers who attended the workshop are now equipped with a full set of tools to help connect their students to nature, the river, and their local park. Through lessons, park contacts, online tools, and virtual classroom visits, the workshop teachers now know how their own local watershed is working alongside them to create meaningful, educational experiences for their students.
My advice to other parks who are developing distance learning tools is to approach the challenge as not just something that is seen as just a temporary fix – it’s a strategic expansion of programming to better serve local schools as well as families across the country. Distance learning will never replace the wonder and awe of a national park visit, but it does afford the possibility of widening the audience, engaging students who may not be able to visit in person, and providing equitable virtual access to parks.
Mississippi Park Connection programming can be accessed at parkconnection.org/learn.
Open OutDoors for Kids