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Teaching Students In the Underground Maze of Mammoth Cave National Park


The gypsum-covered passageways of Mammoth Cave National Park have been turned into classrooms for Western Kentucky University students. In the top photo, Kelli Eskew uses a hand lens to examine gypsum crystals. In the bottom photo, NPS coordinator Cheryl Messenger directs Sarah Faust's attention to differences in gypsum crystals. NPS photos.

National parks, along with being beautiful places to explore, are wonderful classrooms. Students from Western Kentucky University have been learning that at Mammoth Cave National Park, where underground studies are aimed at making them better above-ground teachers.

Who wouldn't jump at a chance to visit a national park for class work? Would you rather turn pages in a book that describe crystalline gypsum formations, or go underground to see these dazzling formations up close?

Through overnight workshops at Mammoth Cave, the National Park Service and Western Kentucky University have been combining skills to teach new teachers how asking questions leads to better learning. Funded by the National Park Foundation’s Parks as Resources for Knowledge program, the workshops are designed to use our national parks to enhance college and university learning.

“Encouraging questions and engaging students in their surroundings stimulates learning,” said Cheryl Messenger, Mammoth Cave’s environmental education coordinator. “It’s called inquiry-based learning and it emphasizes thinking and doing, not just memorization. The goal is to introduce new teachers to the concept before they enter the classroom.”

Dr. Jeanine Huss, an assistant professor at Western Kentucky, coordinates the campus-side of the program. She emphasized the benefits of the workshops to the schools where the pre-service teachers will eventually work.

“Getting teachers and students out of the classroom and into the outdoors has psychological, learning, and physical benefits,” said Dr. Huss. “We provide teachers with the hands-on tools and activities they need to connect their lessons with the world around them.”

During one of the workshops last year, teacher-students mapped sections of Gothic Avenue inside Mammoth Cave, noting features such as cave springs, stalactites and stalagmites. Then they walked above the cave to find sinkholes and other surface elements that correlated to what they found in the cave.

The park has coordinated similar day trips with WKU since 1980. Thanks to the National Park Foundation grant, the workshops have expanded to an overnight program in 2009. “The overnight more than doubles their time in the park,” said Ms. Messenger. “It gives participants the chance to make observations and ask their own questions, like why does this rock sparkle, or where did the cave dirt come from?”

The park employee said the best part of the program is seeing the impact it has on future educators. “One pre-service teacher said she dreaded the idea of spending the night in the park, but after she participated in the workshop she said she couldn’t wait to do something similar with her future students," Ms. Messenger recounted.

This year she expects to host 240 education majors in six overnight trips and four single-day programs.

At the National Park Foundation, President Neil Mullholland said it only makes sense that parks serve as classrooms.

“Kids, and adults, learn more easily when they are outside, moving and experiencing a lesson,” said Mr. Neil Mullholland. “National parks are America’s best classrooms, and we’re proud to be connecting more teachers and students to the parks in their communities.”

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This is just fantastic - I hope others follow suit!

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