National Park Service Learning from the Outside In

National Park Service’s 2016 National Learning Summit: Learning from the Outside In

By Dara Wilson and Hailey Chenevert

On Wednesday afternoon, April 20, 2016, informal education enthusiasts gathered in the National Geographic Society’s Grosvenor Auditorium to reflect on the quintessential role of national parks in the United States’ past, present, and future. The National Park Service (NPS) held the “2016 National Learning Summit: Learning from the Outside In” as part of their year of centennial celebrations.

Several members of NCSCE’s staff attended, including Hailey Chenevert and Dara Wilson, manager and assistant to the informal education partnership programs, and NCSCE executive director, David Burns, who also attended an invitation-only meeting on April 21st. Julia Washburn, Associate Director for Interpretation, Education, and Volunteers at the National Park Service, acted as master of ceremonies for the event. Ms. Washburn also addressed attendees at the 2015 NCSCE DC Symposium and SENCER-ISE National Meeting, and the 2015 SENCER Summer Institute.

NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis welcomed summit attendees by referencing a 1918 letter from Franklin Lane, then Secretary of the Interior, to Stephen Mather, then director of the NPS. In the “Lane Letter,” he writes, “the educational, as well as the recreational use of the national parks should be encouraged in every practicable way. University and high-school classes in science will find special facilities for their vacation period studies.” The SENCER-ISE partnerships demonstrate that the value of national parks and other informal learning environments is not limited to vacations, but can be utilized as educational resources during classes as well.

Dr. Milton Chen, chair of NPS Advisory Board Education Committee, followed Mr. Jarvis’s remarks by speaking briefly about expanding the definition of public education. Dr. Chen discussed valuing “the whole child,” which includes Dr. Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences—verbal, logical/mathematical, visual, musical, bodily/kinesthetic, intrapersonal, interpersonal, and naturalist. The key themes in Dr. Chen’s presentation preluded the three panels featured in the program: (in­­)formal learning in America’s learning landscape; the achievement gap between different demographics in STEM-related disciplines, which is largely attributed to the naturalist experiences (or lack thereof) each demographic encounters; and the necessity to plant the seeds of future cross-sector partnerships.

The panel portion of the summit began with Andrés Henríquez, New York Hall of Science’s Vice President for STEM Learning in Communities, moderating a discussion on “Building a National Learning Landscape.” Jennifer Allebach, Chief Girl Experience Executive of Girl Scouts USA, Dan Beaupre, Vice President of Experiences at National Geographic Society, and Lee Ann Potter, Director of Educational Outreach at the Library of Congress, participated as panelists. The panelists shared the belief that learning is an engaged and active endeavor; they also have a keen awareness about the importance of partnerships and the resources that come from them. As the representative of the Library of Congress, Ms. Potter spoke about the opportunities that collaborations yield. Ms. Potter argued that meaningful engagement could be achieved by harnessing new technologies. As an example, she discussed the Teaching with Primary Sources Program, an initiative that trains teachers on how to utilize the Library’s extensive collection of digitized primary sources in their classroom to supplement instruction.

The second panel, “Making it Happen: Voices from the Field Share their Experiences,” focused on bringing underrepresented people into STEM-related disciplines, as well as connecting them to the outdoors. Moderator Estee Rivera, Partnerships Specialist at NPS Centennial Office, and panelists Dr. Rebecca Stanfield McCown, NPS Director of Stewardship Institute, Victoria Mates, Grand Teton National Park Chief of Interpretation, and Ruben Andrade, César Chávez National Monument Superintendent, started the discussion by stating how they address the themes in their own positions. This panel, the most ethnically diverse in the program, primarily addressed learner-focused education ideas and the biggest challenges preventing the inclusion of underrepresented demographic groups in STEM fields. There was unanimous agreement that an open flow of communication between the facilitator and the audience can make learning experience more impactful. Dialogue between guides and guests, as opposed to guides talking at guests, is the facilitator’s responsibility and gateway to ensuring powerful learning experiences.

Dr. John Falk, director of the Institute for Learning Innovation, moderated the final panel discussion on the “National Policy Landscape and Public Education/Learning Partnerships.” Deb Delisle, CEO of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), Dr. Charlie Ablemann, head of The Barrie School, and Dr. Kevin Clark, professor and director for Digital Media at George Mason University, sat on the panel. During their discussion, the panelists advocated for reaching across sectors to build partnerships that include a diverse array of people and organizations to create deep and cohesive learning environments for students. Panelists concluded that reaching outside the classroom can prepare students to better understand the world they live in, and allow communities to tell their own stories.

Both moderators and speakers included executives from NPS, National Geographic Society, and STEM learning institutions as well as heads of various formal and informal education centers, including Girl Scouts USA and the Library of Congress. The eclectic batch of speakers nicely demonstrated the versatility of cross-sector partnerships, similar to the SENCER-ISE collaborations; furthermore, the multifarious group emphasizes the benefit of inclusion, exemplifying the archetypal affiliations and learning communities that they serve.

Watch the Live Stream video of “Learning from the Outside In” to hear more from the speakers and panelists.

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