America’s Best Idea and America’s Best Classroom
By Mike Mihalik
Imagine a learning experience that goes beyond science and is emotionally, personally and socially valuable.
Maybe that’s why this student created his own 14-minute video, uploaded it to YouTube and shared it with his friends on social media — even though there was never a requirement to do so.
National parks are currently being celebrated as “America’s Best Idea,” and I am a believer in that. The parks offer such a wide variety of content areas to teach about — it goes way beyond science, tapping into emotional and personal dimensions as well.
Not only are the national parks America’s Best Idea, but they might be our best classrooms as well.
Since 2007, I have organized and led trips to different national parks around the country for students at Emmaus High School. The primary goals of the trips were to increase environmental awareness, stewardship and attendance to sites managed by the National Park Service.
Located in Eastern Pennsylvania, our students are not given enough opportunities to enjoy national parks as there aren’t any within 300 miles of our school. Since the first trip to Denali and Kenai Fjords National Parks in 2007, more than 200 students have visited various national parks on multi-day trips around the United States of America.
For me personally and professionally, one of the most exciting projects I ever became involved with was my research through Oregon State University as a graduate student in its Free-Choice Learning Program. With the field trips I organized, students had been informally reporting value in them for several years, but it was still uncertain as to how and why. They claimed they were learning, but I did not fully understand what they were learning and how long the effects lasted. I wanted to know what the overall influence of these trips is for students.
Through student surveys, parent surveys and interviews with students, I found there were long-term impacts resulting from our trips to national parks. Here is what I discovered, specifically around how the trips changed these students’ futures.
What Happens in the Future?
Unlike the students pictured above, I never went to a single national park before the age of 21. I had no idea just how much was out there and what nature had to offer. When I saw Olympic and Mt. Rainier National Parks for the first time, I was hooked. The grandeur and diversity of those parks got my attention immediately.
When I went to Denali and Kenai Fjords for the first time, there was a deeper connection and all I can remember is thinking to myself “I need to share this place with others.”
Since then, I learned that many great things resulted from these trips, but the results are as wild and unpredictable as Denali’s weather and wildlife. For example, consider the 2008 group pictured above. Here’s a closer look at this group today:
- One of these students is currently a national park ranger in Kenai Fjords National Park.
- One of these students went on to become an Earth and Space Science teacher at a high school in Virginia.
- One of these students spent parts of three years living in Alaska and guided kayaking trips into Kenai Fjords National Park.
- One of these students insists that a conversation about Alaska in an interview helped get her an internship at the place she now works full-time.
- One of these students worked as a kayak guide one summer in Alaska and made it a priority to see national parks out west in between his internships for physical therapy.
- One of these students went on to hike the entire Appalachian Trail.
- One of these students went to the University of Alaska-Anchorage and is now an elementary school teacher in Alaska. She also takes her students hiking in Alaska.
I surveyed former students who went on trips of mine lasting at least five days to national parks between 2007 and 2012. Of the students who responded to the surveys, 61% reported some degree of change in their future careers with regards to college major, career path, future location or coursework.
- 33% of the students reported that the trips changed/reinforced their career path and/or intended college major. One student wrote, “Considering that I am currently studying to be fish biologist, I would say that the trip supplemented my interest in fish, and exposed me to the possibilities of working as a fish or wildlife biologist.” Another student reported a change in heart. He/she wrote, “It made me want to go into outdoor recreation field to be more hands on.” After the trip, some students reported changing their undergraduate majors to Biology, Earth and Space Sciences, Outdoor Recreation, Marine Science, Parks and Recreation and Science Education.
- 24% of the students reported a change in their desired location for college or future employment. For example, one former student enrolled at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, two others went to Alaska for summer employment and others wanted to move to the mountains after college. While they did not necessarily enter science-related fields, the trip did influence their residency or ideal future location.
- 4% of the students revealed that the trip affected some courses that they chose to take at college.
One area of significance that became apparent with the data is the relationship between the age of a student when he/she went on his/her first trip and the influence the trip had on their future. All of the former students who responded to this survey went on their first trip between the ages of 14 to 19 years old.
95% of the former students who indicated that the trip affected or reinforced their college major or career path went on their first trip at the age of 17 or under. If the goal is to affect or reinforce college major or career path, get kids to national parks at an impressionable age.
Before and After
In 2013, while I was still conducting most of my research, I also had an Alaska trip to plan. I decided to interview five students from that group before and after they made the trip. All of these students were 18 years old at the time of the interviews and had never made a trip with me to national parks prior to this. Therefore, they would fall under the subgroup of those making their first trip at the age of 18. None of the five students interviewed mentioned a career or college major change, which further reinforces the results from the online surveys.
Despite this, one of the students wants to study abroad in the future, another would like to work in Denali in the summer months with the sled dogs, and another girl discussed how her life would have been different if she went on this trip earlier. She said, “I 100% believe that if I would have gone on this trip before I swore into the Navy, I would be going back to Alaska instead.”
Becoming More Involved in the Outdoors
The most highly supported result from my research is that these field trips are effective in getting the students more involved in nature. 96% of the former students indicated that the trip was either “effective” to some degree or reported an increase in involvement in nature in a variety of ways. The interviews and parent surveys also unanimously supported this idea. This strongly suggests that a student going on a national parks trip will experience a trip that encourages involvement with nature afterwards and just going to the national parks may have been enough.
The interviews and parent surveys also unanimously supported this idea. This strongly suggests that a student going on a national parks trip will experience a trip that encourages involvement with nature afterward, and just going to the national parks may have been enough.
What This Has Meant For Me
I am very fortunate. I teach in a school that has supported me the last ten years leading place-based educational experiences in some wild locations. It is the most fulfilling and exciting part of my job. However, when I take students to Alaska’s Denali and Kenai Fjords, the parks do most of the teaching. The national parks contain the most beautiful scenery in the country, showcasing nature the way it was meant to be. All branches of science are connected there and science is even connected with other subjects.
My role in all of this is build and design the best experience for the students. It has turned into my calling, my duty and obligation to students, and the most fulfilling aspect of my job. My advice is to give it a shot. Take advantage of the national parks. They just might spark a change in the lives of you and your students.
This blog is part of our “Place-Based Education” blog series. To learn more and contribute a guest post for the series, check out the PBE campaign page. Join in the conversation on social media using #PlaceBasedEd. For more on Place-Based Education see:
- Teaching Empathy Through Place-Based Education
- 6 Reasons You Should Work in America’s Parks and Forests
- Parenting, Learning and The Power of Place
- Expanding & Enriching Relationships in Place-Based Education
Mike Mihalik is an Earth & Space Science teacher at Emmaus High School in Emmaus, PA. Follow him on Twitter: @mmihalik24.
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Amazing segment, done by an amazing person. All should be encouraged to explore what is around them and to learn things they never dreamed possible.
My son was so fortunate to have the opportunity to go on two trips with Mr. Mihalik. He knew what he wanted to do for his career early in high school. He is now an Earth and Space Science teacher and loves his job. Thank you, Mike, for making a difference in his life and being such a great influence. I know several other students who also have had their lives touched and shaped by this awesome experience!
I am a big fan of national parks and try to go to as many as I can every year. I love Yellowstone and would recommend visiting the Narrows in Zion's national park. Really, any park you go to will be an awesome experience and I can't think of a better way of teaching kids the importance of the outdoors and environmental awareness. Books are great, but after reading about them, it is good to see them in person.
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