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Students explore history, engineering and ecology at national parks

Taking a hike into the past to understand our present

The sixth–graders at The Mount Washington Elementary School concluded their combined unit in history and design technology with a whirlwind tour of three national parks this spring. 

Thanks to the National Park Trust’s Buddy Bison School Program, the students took all-expenses-paid field trips to Harpers Ferry National Park, Great Falls National Park and the National Mall. They sought out the history and science of the Mid-Atlantic, exploring how rock formations, rivers and ecology influenced the development of the region and early U.S. history. 

“I had never been to Harpers Ferry. It was such a new experience for me learning about the history and nature there,” says sixth-grader Audrey Smith. 

While touring the town and armory of Harpers Ferry and hiking the park, the students gained insight far beyond what they’d find in a book. 

“You can’t separate history and ecology,” said sixth-grade history teacher Ryan Kaiser. “When you see for yourself just how the Shenandoah River and the Potomac River meet at Harpers Ferry, you understand why there was a federal armory there. Then you understand why John Brown led his raid there. It’s all intertwined.”

Pictures from students' national park trips

The students spent a year in design technology class learning about how humans transform the environment. The visits to Harpers Ferry and Great Falls showed students the importance of transportation engineering — and the role of slavery in building the transportation network that grew the young nation. 

The final stop on the national park tour was the National Mall. Once again, students saw ecology, history and engineering combined as they visited the monuments: from the strikingly different design concepts of the Lincoln Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial to the Washington Monument, where marble from two different Maryland quarries resulted in an obelisk in two different shades of white. 

“History is ongoing,” said Kaiser. “The locations and stories of these national parks play a role in where we are as a society. Students want to know what’s going on in the world right now. But to truly understand it, you have to know where we’ve been. You can’t separate the past from the present” 

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Photos from students' national park field trips