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‘America’s Largest Classroom’: NMU prof co-edits book on national parks

By CHRISTIE MASTRIC

Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE — What can be considered the biggest classroom in the United States isn’t a huge amphitheater with seating for hundreds of students.

It’s a place that can have moose, freshwater lakes and paper birch.

Northern Michigan University public relations professor and alumna Jes Thompson co-edited the recently published “America’s Largest Classroom: What We Learn from Our National Parks,” which has been nominated for the National Nonfiction Book Award.

Thompson recruited NMU art and design alumna Abigail Cook to create graphics and help with the final layout and photo rendering for the book’s publisher, University of California Press.

“America’s Largest Classroom,” which features 21 chapters from authors across the United States, includes case studies about different types of place-based learning programs on topics such as indigenous knowledge, climate change, environmental justice, citizen science, and inclusivity at parks and public lands.

The book offers practical advice and insight for improving educational outreach at national parks, as well as suggestions for classroom educators on how to meaningfully incorporate National Park Service sites into their curricula.

Thompson and co-editor Ana Houseal, associate professor and science outreach educator from the University of Wyoming, spent more than three years on the endeavor. Both served on the National Park Service Advisory Board-Education Committee from August 2011 to January 2017.

The book was “launched” at the recent Learning Revolution event, an online global conference with more than 160,000 registered participants, Thompson said.

Dr. Milton Chen, author of Education Nation, chaired the event, and also wrote the foreword to the book, Thompson said. Former director of the National Park Service, Jon Jarvis, and current associate director for education and interpretation, Tom Medema, joined the session to show NPS support for the book and agency perspective on park-based learning.

“The book really started as an effort to collect, share, celebrate the insights from all the many ways we learn and facilitate learning in parks and public lands,” Thompson said during the Zoom session.

Contributors came from many disciplines, she said, with some providing case studies, while others including literature reviews, participant observations, analysis of historical documents and others.

Thompson called the book a “holistic view” of learning.

“We’re really getting a robust picture of all the different ways to understand the impact of learning in places,” Thompson said.

For example, the category “Feedback Loops & Learning” deals with activities such as citizen science projects and field research.

“These authors illustrate the dynamic learning that happen when students are engaged in really meaningful projects in the places that matter to them,” Thompson said.

Those places include Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Cape Cod National Seashore.

The book indicates that traditional schooling, “largely unchanged from previous generations,” needs a bigger vision and innovative partners.

An excerpt from Chen’s foreword reads as follows:

“It’s high time we recognize that a missing key to unlocking the potential of our youth lies beyond the walls of the school building. A major part of the long-standing ‘achievement gap’ can be explained by an ‘experience gap.’ Many of today’s students, from all backgrounds, are growing up without the broad range of experiences that connect classroom lessons to real life and propel their educations forward with purpose and passion.”

The same digital technologies that can bring virtual field trips and global friendships modern students are frequently overused for binge-watching television and texting, the book points out.

Thompson and Houseal worked on a special issue of a peer-reviewed academic journal, Park Stewardship Forum. The special issue was published in late May and includes additional case studies and expansions on some of the content from the book. The journal is an open-source publication, so all of the articles may be downloaded for free.

Daniel Beaupré, vice president of experiences in the education division of the National Geographic Society, wrote the following review: “‘America’s Largest Classroom’ is a masterfully crafted assembly of case studies reflecting the purposes, passions, and impacts of place-based education in our national parks. Written by the very best practitioners, this book offers rich and diverse illustrations of powerful and enduring educational experiences designed to open the eyes, ears, and hearts of the young people who will steward our planet.”

NMU professor Sarah Mittlefehldt, author of “Tangled Roots: The Appalachian Trail and American Environmental Politics,” praised her colleague’s project in a review. She said the national parks have held a special place in the American imagination for more than a century.

“They have helped us to appreciate our common past, and have allowed us to celebrate the inspiring landscapes of our country,” she said. “‘America’s Largest Classroom’ offers a new way of thinking about the national parks as laboratories for learning.”

The collection, according to Mittlefehldt, includes stories from places as diverse as the Great Smoky Mountains to Grand Teton National Park, and illustrates how these places can serve as teaching tools for topics that range from climate change to environmental justice, hydrology and more.

Thompson teaches courses in environmental and social responsibility, new media and public relations. She is also a trained facilitator and mediator and holds an interdisciplinary graduate certificate in “Adaptive Management of Environmental Systems.”

Her research focuses on team and organizational communication about complex ecological issues, such as climate change resilience and sustainable development.

“America’s Largest Classroom” is available on Amazon in hardcover and paperback as well as on Kindle.

Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net

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