Science and Art in the National Parks: Celebrating the Centennial of the U.S. National Park Service

By Clary, Renee | The Science Teacher, October 2016 | Go to article overview

Science and Art in the National Parks: Celebrating the Centennial of the U.S. National Park Service


Clary, Renee, The Science Teacher


This year marks the U.S. National Park Service's 100th anniversary. Although the nation's first national park--Yellowstone--dates to 1872, the government organization protecting and administering the national parks was founded just a hundred years ago, in 1916. Many U.S. national parks were established to preserve their unique geology or biology. Over the years, their often stunning flora, fauna, and topography have been celebrated in many forms of artistic expression. This article describes ways to honor the centennial by integrating scientific concepts with the artistic endeavors that national parks inspire.

The National Park Service

Congress created the National Park Service (NPS) on August 25, 1916, to manage national parks, monuments, and historic sites, including Yellowstone National Park (Figure 1), founded in 1872, and Yosemite, established in 1890. Thirty-five parks existed when the NPS was founded to preserve the natural beauty of these national treasures while also managing public access. Today, the NPS manages 410 sites, including 128 historical parks or sites, 81 national monuments, 59 national parks, 25 battlefields or military parks, 19 preserves, 18 recreation areas, 10 seashores, 4 parkways, 4 lakeshores, and 2 reserves (NPS 2016).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The arts in the national parks

From the beginning, national parks inspired the arts. Artists accompanied explorers on expeditions, bringing back images of stunning vistas; unspoiled landscapes; and strange, beautiful wildlife that would inspire public support for setting aside these dramatic natural areas for preservation. Interestingly, artist George Catlin--an American painter, author, and traveler who specialized in portraits of Native Americans--may have invented the national park concept, proposing the idea of establishing "a nation's park" in 1832 (Winfree 2011; Mackintosh 1999).

In the late 1800s, the Hudson River School painters focused on natural landscapes, moving westward beyond the Catskill Mountains of New York to the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada mountains (Figure 2).

Between 1935 and 1943, the U.S. Works Progress Administration supported a federal art project that funded, among other things, a series of posters that promoted the nature and wildlife of the parks (Figure 3, p. 36). Later, Ansel Adams's black-and-white photographic landscapes shot in Yosemite National Park became world renowned. Park-inspired art is not limited to visual images, either. Composer Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring is now synonymous for many listeners with the gentle peaks of the Smoky Mountains. Artist-in-residence programs have been a part of the national parks for decades (Wharton 1991).

STEAM: Art in our science classrooms

There are many ways to honor the NPS centennial through STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics). The following activities can assist in incorporating art activities in science investigations, or conversely, identifying the science behind the art.

Find the park; find the art. For background information, a good overview of the history of art in the national parks with a focus on Alaska can be accessed online (see "On the web"). You can incorporate the NPS and art in an existing science unit by finding the national site that has the geology, biology, or ecology that parallels the unit's content. For example, Death Valley National Park and Yellowstone National Park can be successfully used in discussions of evolution and speciation; Hot Springs National Park facilitates investigation of geothermal energy; while groundwater, dissolution, and precipitation can all be discussed within Mammoth Cave National Park. Glacier National Park can effectively address climate change.

A table of the NPS sites (see "On the web") includes notable features, founding year, and park size. Science and art activities can address multiple sites or a location near your school. …

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