Partners in the Parks
In 2005, a colleague and I were made aware of the fact that American attendance in our national parks was waning. Because our our prime location in Southern Utah at the hub of a half dozen NPS sites, some of only 20 minutes away, we decided to make a dent in these statistics by taking honors students on one-week-long academic adventures into the parks.
After a successful pilot at Bryce Canyon with 24 students, we applied for and won an NPS Centennial Initiatives grant, which we used to expand the program. Over the course of the grant, we explored and opened up new projects across the US. We also developed and documented our best practices and trained faculty in a project along the US/Mexico border, in NPS sites and a Mexican biosphere preserve. At the conclusion of our grant, our partners in the National Collegiate Honors Council produced monograph recording the history of the program, our "academic adventure" pedagogy, and templates for putting together and testing a new project.
These projects run for approximately five days, and they are designed to be first-time outdoor experiences. In addition to basic camping, hiking, and food preparation skills, students learn about the problem solving, teamwork, the leave no trace ethic, risk management, the history of our national parks, facility and resource management. They are taught in the field by university faculty and NPS personnel. Daily reflection, both oral and in writing, are key features of the program.
The program began in 2007, and since then we've worked with 34 national parks units, from flagship parks like Acadia, Denali, Grand Canyon, and Zion to lesser known and urban parks such as the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Over the years, we have worked with 12 different university partners who have designed and led their own projects under the program brand and guidelines. We've also brought over 400 college students to the parks from almost 90 different campuses nationwide. For many, these trips were their first visit to a national park.
In 2013 it became clear that the program had grown so large that SUU could not coordinate enrollment and finances, without one of us going full time, so we received help from the NCHC, which is housed at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. They are able to manage the business affairs, leaving us to focus on taking college students into the wild.
Here is a wonderful article on the program as it celebrated its tenth anniversary.