PARK Teachers at Golden Gate National Parks

Lynn Fonfa at Crissy riprap site
Lynn Fonfa at Crisssy riprap site

Lynn Fonfa, Education Specialist

Golden Gate National Parks


This article provides information primarily for National Park Service education specialists who may be interested in establishing a relationship with a local university or college with a teacher credential program. The section is written from the perspective of the NPS staff that designed and collaborated on PARK Teachers. Embedded are suggestions from our university partner.

The following background information is included in this document:

• The reasons the NPS decided to pursue this project;

• Ways the staff of the Golden Gate Parks are committed to K-12 and education partnerships;

• How Golden Gate and university formed the project team; and

• How the needs of the park, the partners, and the audiences were met and evaluated.

Setting the Stage

Building on the strength of National Park Labs, a highly successful project that supported the development of high school science programs in six national parks, Toyota USA Foundation once again joined the National Park Service (NPS) to launch PARK Teachers at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, familiarly known as the Golden Gate National Parks. Golden Gate

PARK Teachers is a collaborative effort undertaken by university faculty, nonprofit education partners, teachers, and Golden Gate to introduce new secondary science teachers to national parks as premier places of learning while they are earning their teaching credential.

PARK Teachers also introduces and affirms place-based and learner-centered education, and demonstrates the ways in which national park education programs help support education standards. Pre-service teachers are the primary participants because they:

•Can be overwhelmed with curriculum mandates;

•Are not certain how outdoor pedagogy can enhance their teaching and student learning;

•May have limited contact with experienced teachers who know how to access community resources;

•Tend to be assigned to schools in low-income areas whose students have less exposure to national parks; and

•Seek guidance in designing units that are inquiry-based and hands-on.

PARK Teachers was designed to meet these critical goals:

•Create a module on place-based and inquiry-based education and integrate it into science methods courses for pre-service and induction-period teachers. The module focuses on using informal science education resources, such as national parks, to enhance formal science instruction and engage students in authentic science.

•Develop and build a model partnership with colleges of education that provides guidelines for other national parks and colleges of education to establish collaborative partnerships to help advance the practice of place-based and inquiry-based science teaching methodology.

•Demonstrate the use of technology as a tool for enhancing place-based and inquiry-based science education.

Presidio serpentine bluffs
Serpentine bluffs of the Presidio with Marin Headlands behind

Golden Gate

Golden Gate-with fragile indigenous habitats and historic landmarks, ancient redwood groves and dramatic coastal preserve-is also the setting for one of the largest and most inspiring urban outdoor classrooms. Deeply committed to young people, the National Park Service, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy (Parks Conservancy), and Presidio Trust staff partner with educators, students, and the community to design programs that encourage inquiry-based learning linked to school curriculum. The goals and principles of the K-12 program confirm the agencies' commitment to authentic, inclusive, and relevant education.

At the heart of the education program is the Crissy Field Center, a partnership project of the Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service. The Center offers multicultural programs that actively engage youth with their environments and promote collaborations in building a more sustainable and environmentally just society. Programs address such important issues as animal adaptation, water quality, native habitats, and human impact on the environment.

The park has developed partnerships with local universities to offer special internships to students interested in pursuing a career in the natural environment, cultural heritage, or related fields. The park also hosts numerous educator workshops each year that address professional development.

Building the Team

Four NPS staff members served on the team: 1. the NPS Education Specialist (who was the project manager), 2. a field-based Education Coordinator with expertise in geology (a former classroom teacher and designer of several park education programs, including the one on which PARK Teachers is based), 3. an interpretive ranger with a PhD in geology (who has taught at the college level, as well as presented an array of public geology programs), and, 4. Golden Gate's Media Specialist, who assists with the web site. The Pacific West Regional Education Specialist also played a fundamental role in the initial design and implementation of the program, but left the NPS during the project.

San Francisco State University (SFSU) was chosen as the partner school because its credential program is widely acknowledged as an excellent course of study and its candidates conduct their pre-service work primarily in San Francisco schools. A critical juncture in the implementation of PARK Teachers called for NPS staff to identify and approach a university faculty member who would be interested in being the key partner on the project.

The NPS staff selected the education professor who teaches the secondary science methods course at SFSU and has over 20 years of experience working with both pre- and in-service teachers in largely urban settings. Her course emphasized inquiry-based instruction; students as constructors of their own knowledge; a standards-based curriculum; and congruency among standards, student outcomes, and instructional activities. She believed strongly in the project and envisioned the PARK Teachersprogram as part of her laboratory unit.

The park's strong need for guidance in the design of the web component prompted an invitation to the George Lucas Educational Foundation (GLEF), a nationally recognized leader in educational technology. The director of GLEF and several members of its staff already had a close association with the park, either through volunteer work or a previous collaboration at NPS-sponsored events. GLEF took an interest in PARK Teachers since it embraces mutually held values of inquiry and place-based learning.

The final piece was to find an evaluator who would understand the goals of the project and could design an assessment to measure the success of the program in meeting these goals. Again, the park looked to someone familiar with the park and its educational programs and invited a vice president of education and evaluation at one of the nonprofit park partners located within the park. Previously on the faculty of Stanford University, she had been an instructor for beginning teachers and knew the difficulties they faced in bringing their students to parks and other community settings.
After the first successful field session with SFSU, the team met with a faculty member from Sonoma State University who teaches credential candidates pursuing a career in secondary science and also bases his course on inquiry approaches. A frequent visitor to national parks, he was immediately enthusiastic about the potential of PARK Teachers. Although not a member of the project team, he has provided important feedback and has partnered with the park to incorporate the classroom and field sessions into his course. The program with Sonoma State has reaffirmed that PARK Teachers can be extended to a different group of students and replicated by another credential program.

Students using Magic Windows at Crissy riprap
Students using Magic Windows at Crissy riprap.

Designing the Curriculum

The project team wanted to design a curriculum that met the guidelines set forth by the grant, as well as one that followed the effective framework of the K-12 programs offered by the park:

•A pre-visit classroom presentation that introduces the park, the essential question that frames the curriculum, basic content to be covered, learning activities that will be conducted, and a safety message;

•A hands-on field session that allows participants to answer essential questions, learn how to apply scientific methods (posing questions, collecting and analyzing evidence, and connecting ideas to scientific understandings), and link the program to bigger scientific processes; and

•A web site that extends the experience by providing teaching tools and resources.

With the structure and education team in place, the group was able to focus on the development of the content and learning activities. The SFSU professor already had a full course that mandated coverage of numerous aspects of curriculum and instruction. She identified her unit on "how to formulate laboratory lessons" as the best place for the NPS module. She set aside a portion of one class for a pre-visit introduction and a full 3-hour class for the field session. This demonstrated a significant commitment.

From the beginning, the NPS staff favored the design of a geology-based program for three key reasons: 1. a demonstrated need by middle school teachers to learn geology in an authentic context, 2. the potential offered by the Franciscan Complex for geologic study, and 3. the availability of NPS staff during the grant period.

The Marin Headlands, a world-renowned location for the study of geology and plate tectonics, was the first choice of the NPS staff for the field session. The SFSU professor, however, expressed a deep concern that this would be too far for her students to travel. She proposed Crissy Field, a shoreline in the Presidio of San Francisco, closer to campus. Crissy Field made sense: the area is protected by a collection of picturesque riprap composed primarily, although not exclusively, of rocks from the local Franciscan Complex. It offered the best opportunity for an accessible geology-based program on the San Francisco side of the park.

The team then identified the two critical issues to track: 1. Would the field session provide a high-quality inquiry experience? 2. Would the riprap investigation feel like authentic science to the candidates? The module would need to strike a balance between inquiry and instruction within a relatively short time frame. Candidates would need time to observe, interact, and create their own understanding of the geologic changes evidenced by the Franciscan rocks. They would need to feel that the lesson and new teaching tools were useful, meaningful, and could be applied to their own classroom curriculum.

During this same time period, the NPS staff began discussions with the secondary science professor at Sonoma State University, just north of the Marin Headlands. Though he was very interested in bringing his candidates to the Headlands, he initially approached the program somewhat differently than Dr. O'Sullivan at SFSU. He invited the NPS staff to deliver the pre-visit lesson, but presented the field session as a voluntary opportunity rather than a requirement of the course. The result was an enthusiastic, yet unpredictable, audience. After two successful visits to the park, he decided to make the field session a requirement of the course.

The two PARK Teachers modules share the same defining features: inquiry, geologic investigation, pre-visit and field session, and interactive teaching tools (although in two different locations). They also pose the same essential question: How do I recognize evidence of geologic change in my environment?

Performing Cookie Tectonics during Smashing Plates
Performing Cookie Tectonics during Smashing Plates.

Rockin' in the Riprap

The Rockin' in the Riprap module takes place at the Crissy Field shoreline and Crissy Field Center. The site provides an excellent opportunity to investigate rocks in a typical urban setting, separated from their place of origin. During the pre-visit, an interactive presentation by the professor introduces participants to Crissy Field, reinforces basics of rock identification, and opens the teaching tool, "magic windows," on geologic time. At Crissy Field, candidates raise questions of their own after using this innovative tool and inspecting the rocks. They observe the riprap, examine maps, and peruse photographs to develop explanations for the sources and history of the rocks. They then participate in an interactive review of plate tectonics and link this to their own findings.

Smashing Plates

Smashing Plates brings candidates to the Marin Headlands, where they experience the story of smashing tectonic plates and the crumpling of an ancient seafloor. Here, they see the Franciscan Complex in its actual physical context. During the pre-visit for Smashing Plates,participants explore how global geologic processes, such as plate tectonics and climate change, form local landscapes. They engage in an interactive review of plate tectonics, and then build their knowledge of the Franciscan rocks using common food items (candy)-an edible geology. In the Marin Headlands, students use magic windows and generate their own questions about the changes they see.

Going On-line

The first step in constructing the extended web site was to send a survey to teachers who had participated in the park's middle school geology program or had attended an environmental education workshop with the Headlands Institute, a nonprofit park partner. Candidates from PARK Teachers also made recommendations. Everyone was asked what they looked for in a web site and to identify their favorite education sites.

This advice provided the project team with an agenda for a special half-day planning workshop with web designers, university faculty, and curriculum specialists. The group was able to begin the discussion with the following simple assumptions:

•Teachers want place-based teaching tools.

•Teachers want a "lessons shared" element for feedback and collaboration.

•Students want animation and interactive lessons.

The group also was able to identify potential users and prioritize the design of the web site to meet their needs and interest:

•Science methods instructors at the university level.

•Pre-service teachers who have participated in PARK Teachers.

•In-service classroom teachers who participate in the park's middle school geology program, Rocks on the Move.

•Teachers who search the web for lesson plans and teaching tools in geology.

•National Park Service education staff.

•Park partners and other informal educators.

•Students who surf the web for interactive games.

Finally, the workshop was able to focus on the following three questions: 1. Which of the teaching tools designed for PARK Teachers would best translate to web format? 2. What needs of the various audiences can be met? 3. How can we retain inquiry-based qualities?

A year of intense review and discussion followed the workshop. The team decided the best approach would be to construct a modest web site that provides guidance on how to form a similar partnership, the rationale behind the pedagogy, and new resources for teaching and learning that combine the best practices in the inquiry method and interactive games for the web.

The four principal categories are Outdoor Labs in Pre-service Science Curriculum, advice to professional development providers and lesson plans from the university professor; Teaching Techniques and Tools, a thorough treatment of the program's inquiry activities, including video demonstrations, suggested narratives, and the rationale behind the pedagogy; Geology Resources, an array of maps, identification cards, and an interactive game to help teachers and students connect the essential questions and their own ideas to current scientific understanding about the Franciscan Complex; and, finally, Checking for Understanding and Assessment, a framework and method to evaluate how informal science education resources, such as those supplied by Golden Gate, enhance formal science instruction, engage students in authentic science, and offer creative partnerships for teacher credential programs.

Taking notes during Smashing Plates
Taking notes during Smashing Plates.

Lessons Learned

The university and the National Park Service hold education as a core value. PARK Teachersbrought together the dynamic perspectives of an interdisciplinary team eager to provide a quality inquiry experience for pre-service teachers that could encourage them to see outdoor pedagogy as an exciting alternative (or supplement) to textbook learning. While a myriad of issues surfaced throughout the planning and implementation of PARK Teachers, none proved too difficult to solve because of the partners' mutual commitment to the audience.

Here is a list of the most salient lessons learned:

Discuss and agree upon goals that meet the needs of the interdisciplinary team members.

•Select and plan a field/place-based experience that can meet multiple goals.

•Ascertain that all team members understand the science and classroom pedagogy that will pertain.

•Incorporate inquiry into the experience; keep in mind that it need not all be student-directed.

•Determine prior participants' knowledge in order to determine whether the experience is too easy or too difficult and what you may need to provide.

•Consider how best to work within time constraints.

•Examine other logistics carefully: travel, site accessibility, safety, regulations and requirements.

•Be flexible: goals, plans for the experience, and logistics will need negotiation and possibly modification after the first offering of the experience.

•Allow assessments to inform future efforts and supporters and be prepared to amend them as needed.

The project team's list of shared lessons learned will be familiar to those who have embarked on similar journeys, but the setting within a national park raised one particular issue of note. NPS staff, whose primary mission is to protect and preserve the natural and cultural resources within Golden Gate, tend to choose park sites for school and public programs that best:

•Reveal the international, national, and local significance of these resources;

•Tell the compelling story behind the resources; and

•Offer opportunities for safe, non-impact, hands-on discovery.

NPS staff, as well as other informal educators, should be prepared to think imaginatively about their site and see it through the eyes of their university partners.

Last updated: February 28, 2015

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