How have people used the night sky to make decisions in other times and cultures? How do people use nature to connect to themselves, each other, and the environment? Are public parks a luxury or a necessity?
In early 2019, an impasse on the federal budget led to the closure of national parks. Eighth graders were curious and passionate about how the shutdown was affecting the parks and the role of parks in people’s lives. Students explored how people use parks to connect to themselves, each other, and to nature. Students used the design thinking process to create a product that preserved and enhanced a local, state, or national park. They visited various parks to do field work for their products and wrote about “peak moments” that often occur when humans are immersed in nature.
The project launched with a trip to a state park, where students established their first relationship with park rangers who spoke about their needs. Two of the park clients wanted the students to help develop products that would encourage and teach users about enjoying the parks at night. That dovetailed perfectly with teacher Chris Olivas’s passion for astrophotography and his desire to teach about astronomy, light, and photography.
The team came up with a rough list of potential products based on their clients’ needs. Students responded to an interest survey, and wrote “job applications” to be on various product teams.
This project was featured in the 2021 book Changing the Subject: Twenty Years of Projects from High Tech High. You can learn more about the book and the projects within by visiting the official website.
The project was structured around the design thinking steps of empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test. During visits to the parks, students observed and interviewed rangers about their park’s needs. They came up with solutions, prototyped them, and received feedback from their clients. Products resulting from the design process included:
While each group of students focused on a product for a different client, all students engaged in reading and writing about nature and the history of national and state parks. The whole class read Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” and debated the beauty and pitfalls of nature, as well as the mental health mysteries and issues raised by the book. Writing products included essays arguing whether national parks are a luxury or a necessity, and a composite essay entitled “Dear National Parks” that combined each student’s favorite moment in the parks, which was shared with Kamala Harris, who was then a California senator.
Many of the texts used for the project were challenging for eighth graders. The teaching team used a variety of scaffolding techniques for close reading and writing — including graphic organizers, close reading steps, sentence starters, partnered text translation and analysis.
Brittany and Chris created multiple opportunities for self-assessment, through writing and editing rubrics and assessments of prototypes. According to Brittany, the biggest change in students may have been in their understanding of how they could make an impact. At the start of the project, many voiced frustration about neglect and vandalism of the parks, but had a sense of “Yeah, but there’s nothing we can do.” By the end of the project, they saw how small acts, such as reducing light pollution, cleaning up parks, and advocating with elected officials can make a difference.
At an evening school exhibition, students showed their design process and products; they created stations about particular research topics, such as the dark sky communities movement. They recreated the side of the bus from “In the Wild”. One group created a film about young people connecting with nature and created a virtual campfire using video projection.
After the exhibition, the groups presented their products to their park ranger clients, and spent a service day working in one of the parks.