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The City Journals

National parks span the entire eighth-grade curriculum

Jun 21, 2017 04:47PM ● By Jet Burnham

Students created dioramas of national parks. (Jet Burnham/City Journal)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected] 

Eighth-graders have become experts on national parks by learning about them in every class, every subject.

“It is a cross-curricular interdisciplinary project that stems from preservation of national parks,” said Kenton Bustin, a science teacher at South Hills Middle who is part of a team of teachers who collaborated on the project.

Last fall, students chose a national park to explore through language arts, science, computer tech, art and history assignments. 

“This way is more fun to learn,” said eighth-grader Gage Childs, who said the project spanned the whole year.

The project stems from ecology, said Bustin. He assigned students to study the plants and animals in their parks and their relationship in the food chain. They also researched human impact on the ecosystems. The project showed the students first-hand the effects of geological forces such as erosion and volcanoes.

“I didn’t realize how many geological features it has and how big it was,” said Zyan Hinckley, who studied Yellowstone National Park.

Gage’s project focused on Grand Teton National Park. He had visited the park previously but hadn’t known about the educational and recreational opportunities available. Through his research, he was surprised to learn there are Billy goats living there.

Students applied language arts curriculum skills to the project by writing descriptive, comparative and argumentative essays about their parks.

“We had to pick another national park and compare the two and say why ours was better or worse,” said Zyan.  

They also wrote an essay about why people should visit their park. Language arts teacher, Kimese Vanderlinden, said the curriculum requires eighth-graders to learn to create a works cited list. Her students could use their list throughout the year, referring to sources as different projects were assigned.

Students applied art curriculum as they created models and dioramas of the geological features and environment of their parks. Zyan made her diorama of Old Faithful out of tissue paper. She said there were few guidelines so student could be very creative.

Students planned road trips of how they would travel to their park. Gage said he enjoyed this project the most. He plans to visit the park again.

Through the creation of timelines and study of native peoples, students explored the history of their parks.

 “I liked to research Native Americans and the different cultures of the people who lived there,” said Gabe Kidd.

He found most of his information on Glacier Bay National Park of Alaska from the National Parks Reserve website where he developed an appreciation for park rangers.

“I learned that people in the park work really hard to make sure everything is kept clean and safe for the environment,” Gabe said, adding that he realizes that nature is fragile. “The ice is breaking off, and after a certain amount of time there won’t be a Glacier Bay—it’ll just be water,” he said.

Gabe has learned the value of national parks.

“National parks remind people what life used to be like,” he said. “They help us be aware of nature and how people are affecting it and what we need to do to stop problems.”

Zyan is concerned that humans negatively impact these nature preserves.

 “The problem in my park is littering—that kind of worries me,” Zyan said. “And pollution, too, because a lot of animals are getting killed because of pollution and garbage.”

The students believe preservation of national parks is important.

 “It’s a good place to always have a little bit of nature,” Zyan said. Gage said national parks provide opportunities for people from cities to experience outdoor activities like hiking and fishing.

Some of the kids have been able to visit their parks. Parents plan family vacations around the visit.

The year’s worth of research culminated in a commercial created by each student to showcase their parks.

“The commercial brings together everything they’ve learned in an entertaining way,” said Vanderlinden. “It is a way for students to share what they have learned with their classmates.”

A National Parks pass is available for free to fourth-graders and their families. More information is available at