In today’s technologically saturated society, it’s easy to assume that we are confronted with a newly emerging crisis in which technology creates a barrier between us and the great outdoors. Why would we need to go on a hike, camp out under the stars, or visit a national park when we can google a picture of it? It may come as a surprise, but our lack of connection with the outdoors is not new.
More than a hundred years ago, long before the invention of the internet, Wi-Fi, tablets, and smart phones, John Muir wrote about our newly created national parks – Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the West. In the opening lines of his book, Our National Parks, Muir observed society’s lack of engagement with the great outdoors.
“The tendency nowadays to wander in wildernesses is delightful to see. Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, overcivilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease”
(Muir, 1901, p. 1).
A 119, the national parks continue to provide society with the same sense of wonderment and rejuvenation for those who journey through park gates into a land free of technological trappings.
This past week, I had the privilege of joining a group of students from Texas Tech University for a service-based learning trip to the Grand Canyon. We spent the week volunteering with the National Park Service providing park interpretation, in which we provided more than 11,000 park visitors with information necessary to further enhance their understanding of and experience within the park. That included information about the park itself, its history, the underlying geological formation of the canyon, the wildlife living in the park, the culture of the people who inhabited the park, how visitors impact the park today, the weather within the canyon, the river that carved it, and much more.
Throughout the week, we worked closely with two NPS park rangers who introduced us to other rangers and park employees working on studying and preserving the natural and cultural heritage of the park.
These educational experiences not only helped developed our own understanding of the Grand Canyon, but also share the work that the park is doing with park visitors. It’s important for park visitors to understand that the Grand Canyon is a living, everchanging canyon with a delicate ecosystem. The NPS plays an important role in studying and protecting the canyon while making it accessible to visitors from around the world. When we as a society more fully value these national treasures, we are better prepared to advocate for their continued protection so that they are here for many more generations of visitors.
The Vast Expanse of the Grand Canyon
Park interpreters help visitors have a meaningful and memorable experience within the park, taking in all that the park has to offer. Consider for a moment the vastness of the Grand Canyon itself. On average, the Grand Canyon is about a mile deep, 10 miles across from the South to North Rim, and spans the length of 277 river miles. The park itself encompasses roughly 1,900 square miles.
In 2018, 6.3 million people visited Grand Canyon National Park from all over the world. Last week, I had the pleasure of talking with visitors from throughout the United States as well as Ireland, Canada, Australia, Germany, and Japan, to name a few. The shear greatness of the canyon and the park itself make it a challenging landscape to navigate for some visitors, especially those who are not accustomed to exploring the outdoors or relying on a map when their GPS loses its signal. When visitors understand what they are experiencing, it helps create a more meaningful and impactful experience, and park interpreters play a very important role in building those experiences for visitors of all ages and backgrounds.
What is Service-based Learning?
Service-based learning involves getting out of the classroom and into the community in order to see how issues are impacting others on a daily basis. According to the National Service Learning Clearinghouse, service-based learning is “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.”
As students participating in service-based learning trips, it’s about moving beyond the things we read in a newspaper or book, see in a video or news story, or listen to via a podcast. Rather, it’s how we infuse that knowledge with the experiences of those affected firsthand by these issues. As volunteers, we have a shared goal in making meaningful differences in our communities – whether that’s through volunteerism, our professional endeavors, or both. This week was about seeing the world beyond our own door step, stepping beyond our own comfort zones in order to make meaningful contributions.
We learned a lot this week while visiting the Grand Canyon! On our first day we met with a Tess, a wildlife technician working at the park through an AmeriCorps program. The park studies the migration patterns of specific animals in order to better understand:
how the Glen Canyon Dam impacts wildlife crossings between the northern and southern rims
how the migration patterns of the bison on the northern rim and elk on the southern rim inform wildlife management plans
and how the park surveys the 22 species of bats that live within the park in order to better understand the possible impact of White-Nose Syndrome
Together, the students from the three universities volunteering in the park had an opportunity to participate in a Q&A with senior park officials about issues and events related to park operations. We discussed how the park collaborates with other parks and government agencies, local tribal groups, and the public in order to ensure that the park remains accessible to the public, protected for generations to come, and that visitors have a safe and positive experience.
Finally, our group had the opportunity to tour the park’s museum collection. Curator Colleen Hyde took us behind the scenes to talk about and view some of the 1.7 million artifacts the museum houses related to the cultural and natural history of the park. These artifacts are important pieces to the Grand Canyon story. Under federal law, artifacts must remain where they are found within the park unless that are in danger of being damaged by the elements, human interference, etc. Many of the park’s treasures have been preserved for thousands of years by the dry and arid climate of the Southwest, particularly the caves who unknowingly house these artifacts for thousands of years. As a result, the United States Geological Survey no longer puts caves on maps in order to preserve them and the archeological and anthropological content within them.
Experiencing Your America
This past week at the Grand Canyon was more than a trip to see one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It was a week in which we learned about the archeological, geographical, cultural, and ecological richness of the canyon and the park. As a result, we were able to help more than 11,000 visitors from around the world enjoy this natural treasure. Enjoying the naturalness of the great outdoors helped me dust off the stress of being a doctoral student while renewing my passion for service-based learning, something that I hope to incorporate into my own work as a future faculty member.