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HOW TO Inquire Like a Ranger

A recently published study in Science Education International found that "contextualization [is] one of the most important determiners of student enjoyment"

This makes a lot of sense as connecting learning to the real world through authentic examples helps to show that there is more to learning than just developing knowledge for the sake of it. Our students should understand that knowledge and understanding are not just built so that you check the right box on a multiple-choice test. They are tools that should be employed for solving problems, creating solutions, and ultimately, improving the world we inhabit. Whether you choose to do that through addressing environmental issues, helping to rediscover long-lost parts of our history, or articulating points of view in a way that builds bridges between people, it can be all of those things. These are also the kinds of things that are done every day by scientists, historians, and rangers at national parks who are constantly utilizing their knowledge to better conserve and interpret our country's most important places.

Teachers often struggle to correctly contextualize knowledge and show that it has value outside of the classroom through authentic processes, but if they were more connected to the kinds of learning that goes on in national parks they wouldn't have this issue. 

A powerful example of how contextualized learning can occur through a combination of in-person lessons and virtual learning experiences has been developed by Sleeping Bear Dunes Nat'l Lakeshore in Michigan. You can use this same model, which is linked below, in your own classroom to help contextualize learning for your students; 

First, a problem or challenge is presented to the students by their teacher in the form of a provocative video, a set of statistics, or possibly an article all of which are linked to a specific park or location so that the problem is contextualized through an actual location. If the place is nearby, all the better, but national parks can also be used even if they are a good distance away. The provocation provided by the teacher gets the learners curious and starts them asking questions. The learning goal is then presented in the form of a challenge which the teacher elaborates on while providing answers to the logistical questions students need to know before they can fully engage with solving the challenge.

Sample challenges

  • The parking lot at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center is not able to accommodate all the vehicles looking for a space. How can we use area and perimeter to make it more efficient? 

  • Petersburg Nat'l Battlefield is located in the middle of a majority Black community, but the visitors to the park are mostly white. How can we make this park more relevant to the community that borders it? 

  • The Gauley River Nat'l Recreation Area is home to the Candy Darter, an endemic fish found nowhere else in the world. How can we use our understanding of the hydrological cycle to help protect it?

The second phase of the project involves student-led exploratory inquiry that includes opportunities for independent learning like research. Once the problem or challenge is understood, students need to search for the knowledge that will help them form their solution in the form of some sort of final product. The teacher supports this by helping curate resources that build knowledge or supporting the management of the learning environment by helping redirect behaviors and providing management tools for students to manage themselves. 

Students work to formulate and refine their solutions and answers, then demonstrate what they have learned through authentic means. This can take the form of a presentation, a design, or some sort of media like a short video or an infographic. 

In the example from Sleeping Bear Dunes, you can see that the park plays a role in helping the students acquire knowledge by providing both distance-based and in-person programming. 

In the third and final phase, the students showcase their work or solution through a public exhibition or outward-facing product of some sort. In a best-case scenario, an outside expert is brought in to view the student solutions and provide them an outside perspective. 

In the Sleeping Bear Dunes example, the students present products to a park ranger who gives them feedback on the solution at the same time they share how the park is addressing the challenge the students already addressed. The students then get to see the impact of their work, potentially or 


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