70: Using National Parks as Earth Science Phenomena

May 13, 2022

In this episode, Nicole interviews high school Earth Science Teacher Alyssa Weisenstein. Alyssa is the creator behind Teacher On A Trip, a blog about using National Parks as Earth Science phenomena. Alyssa loves to travel and brings this enthusiasm into her science classes. She weaves the amazing geographic resources we have here in the United States into her Earth Science storylines.

Using National Parks as Earth Science Phenomena

Alyssa started using NGSS Storylines almost by accident. One year, just before school started, a colleague introduced her to the Illinois Biology Storylines. After using the storylines, Alyssa started to understand the importance of using a discovery-based approach in her classroom.

Then, she started looking for storylines in the Earth Science realm. But, she had trouble finding what she needed. Eventually, she decided to create her own storylines around the national parks.

What are phenomena?

We’ve discussed phenomena extensively here on the podcast. Essentially, phenomena are a specific occurrence in the natural world that sparks curiosity and helps students to answer questions.

We have discussed phenomena extensively on the podcast. So, if you are interested in learning more about phenomena, here are a few episodes to check out:

How long does it take to develop storylines?

Alyssa admits that it takes a long time to develop storylines. For example, she says that some of the national park storylines that she’s developed took years. However, she built something usable much more quickly. Then, she refined the storylines over time. Now, she is still making improvements but the basic storyline is essentially set.

Why do national parks make great phenomena?

Alyssa builds her storylines around national parks. She uses national parks as the anchor for her units. She started by bringing in her own travel experiences. To her surprise, the students were interested. So, she decided to dig deeper and develop storylines around the national parks.

Alyssa acknowledges that there is a big push for place-based science. In this scenario, students learn about their local environment. Alyssa does connect what students are learning to local phenomena. However, she finds that her students are interested in more awe-inspiring phenomena.

This speaks to the point that it is important to develop units that target your particular population. Alyssa found success because she listened to her students’ interests.

How Alyssa Started

For example, Alyssa traveled to the Andes Mountains. She noticed that she struggled to breathe on her hike due to the elevation. This experience tied into standards about the atmosphere.

Because student interest was high, Alyssa thought of ways to bring in more of these experiences. She realized that engagement was high because she was passionate and knowledgeable about the subject.

Including the Practice of Asking Questions

Most teachers struggle with getting their students to a. answer questions. However, Alyssa’s students always asked questions to find out more. She loves using national parks because they spark so much curiosity in her students.

So many resources are available!

There are endless resources related to national parks. This is one of the things that make them great phenomena.

image of grand canyon with text underneath that reads "There is so much information about the national parks, which makes them great phenomena.   Also, it helps you  bring the science and engineering practices into your storyline.

For example, it’s easy to find professional pictures, videos, and data about a park. This makes it easy to bring in activities that require students to use the science and engineering practices.

Alyssa recommends starting with the National Parks Service Website. However, a quick internet search will turn up a ton of information as well.