One of the most memorable experiences from high school was the summer that I spent building trails in Denali National Park, Alaska. Not only was the work itself challenging and rewarding, but it also gave me a unique opportunity to learn about local ecology and culture outside of a traditional classroom setting. I didn’t realize at the time that I was engaging in hands-on, experiential learning and an integrated curriculum, but I loved every minute of it.

Educators know the value in making learning come alive for students, and thankfully they have a wealth of resources in the country’s national parks. In Tennessee, we are fortunate to be home to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park partners with local schools in a program called Parks as Classrooms, which provides outdoor, hands-on learning for K-12 students at no-cost. The programs are also developed jointly by park rangers and Tennessee educators to align classroom study with important park themes. There are additional opportunities for students to learn about the unique parks all across the country through Electronic Field Trips, which are available through the National Park Foundation site.

Teachers can also join in the fun through professional development opportunities designed specifically for educators at The Smoky Mountain Field School, which is a cooperative effort between the National Park and UT Knoxville. The school offers a variety of courses for community members as well – I’m thinking of registering for the Edible and Poisonous Fungi of the Smokies (my mom thinks all mushrooms are poisonous and I’d love to learn how to show her the difference).

In February of this year, the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Education signed a Memorandum of Understanding agreeing to develop innovative and effective ways to connect students with the outdoors and contribute to their learning across multiple subject areas, including science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

As parents, teachers, and students all face challenges with the evolving landscape of education, it is important to remember that learning can and should be fun and rewarding. Tomorrow, Saturday, September 29, is National Public Lands Day. National parks across the country will be offering free admission to all visitors. There are 12 sites just in Tennessee!