Educator Spotlight: Get Your Students Outside!

The following post was written by Kailyn Bettle, an undergraduate research assistant for the Geographic Alliance of Iowa at the University of Northern Iowa.

Alex Oberle, this week’s Educator of the Week, finds creative ways to get more people excited about geography and science—from using university mascots to raise awareness about the plight of big cats to supporting virtual national park experiences. At the moment, he is focused on two main goals: sharing the joy of national parks and getting students outside with BioBlitz. Alex is a geography professor at the University of Northern Iowa and the coordinator for the Geographic Alliance of Iowa.

Alex in the Rampart Range’s Ice Cave Creek, a few miles from his hometown of Monument, Colorado. Photo by Matt Oberle


National Parks
Growing up in the Philippines, New Mexico, and Colorado, Alex had national parks and other preserved lands in his backyard. His early experiences—including regular school field trips to Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado, where he saw giant petrified tree stumps, wildlife, and amazing views of Pikes Peak—sparked the twin interests in geography and travel he maintains today.

Alex lives in Iowa now, a state with no national parks and limited federal lands. Despite this, he is still working to bring national parks to the classroom.

Alex is supporting an online exhibition called My National Parks: Connecting Visitors to the Nation’s Backyard by making it accessible to teachers for classroom use. The exhibit, created by a team of history professors and UNI students, shares Iowa students’ experiences with national parks through compelling narratives and photos. Through firsthand accounts, visitors to the exhibit can experience the power of parks from anywhere in the world.

Consider incorporating this exhibit into your own classroom as a way to celebrate this year’s 100th anniversary of the National Park System. National Geographic is also honoring the centennial with digital storytelling and special classroom activities.

But there’s no substitute for actually getting your students outside—that’s where BioBlitz comes in.

Getting students outside and interacting with the natural world around them is exactly the goal of BioBlitz. It’s a National Geographic citizen science initiative where teams of volunteer scientists, families, students, educators, and other community members work together to find and identify as many species as possible in a specific geographic location.

As a child, Alex conducted his own versions of bioblitzes—though his parents just thought he was goofing around outside. It didn’t matter where he was as long as he was outside exploring—whether observing the ants, quail, and cacti on the mesa behind his house in New Mexico, or observing miniature ecosystems in the tide pools of the Philippines.

Alex in 1981 conducing his own bioblitz before they were even a “thing” in Capones Island, Philippines. Photo by Nan Oberle


Alex believes that as many students as possible should have the opportunity to explore their local habitats, so his team set up several bioblitzes in Iowa, aspiring to involve more than 700 students this year! Iowa prides itself on a great system of county parks that promote conservation in a similar manner to the National Park System. This network gives students and teachers the opportunity to work closely with naturalists in the state’s beautiful county parks and natural areas.

Even if your state doesn’t have national parks, partnering with a local park can provide your class the opportunity to work closely with naturalists for your bioblitz. Use this map to find a Nat Geo-affiliated BioBlitz near you or start your own!

We thank Dr. Leisl Carr-Childers, Dr. Mike Childers, and the UNI Public History Program for leading the “My National Parks” project and UNI students Kailyn Bettle (E/LA Education), Nicole Hindman (Biology), BJ Humphrey (Geography), and 14 students in UNI’s Fall 2015 “Introduction to Museum Studies” class for their contributions to this project.


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