Should national parks be respites where visitors, young and old, are encouraged to turn off their electronic devices? If so, do national parks risk losing relevancy? One youth group explores how technology can improve the park experience.
National parks are places of wonder where families can introduce their children to meteors in the starry night skies, salamanders on the forest floor, or geology in action. However, young people are going outdoors less and less for a variety of reasons—fear, lack of access, no familiarity or time, etc. Simultaneously, technology is becoming ubiquitous. Automobiles have location devices and back-up cameras, “Angry Birds” has become a standard tool for distracting upset kids, and children are using computers regularly throughout their school years.
What does this mean for our national parks? Should they be respites where visitors, young and old, are encouraged to turn off their electronic devices? If so, do national parks risk losing relevancy? Will we lose a generation or more of future park supporters because they are not comfortable being away from technology? Can conservation survive that?
Friends of Acadia and Acadia National Park are partnering on a youth program, the Acadia Youth Technology Team (AYTT), to develop ways to meet technologically savvy people halfway in a national park setting. Founded two years ago, the AYTT set out to explore ideas for appropriate uses of technology that would improve the visitor experience (rather than detract from it) and that might help engage future park stewards. Comprised of four high school-aged interns and a college-aged leader, the AYTT is a “by youth, for youth” technology think tank at Acadia.
The team’s first summer was spent exploring park programs and destinations, interviewing park visitors about expectations for technology in Acadia, brainstorming potential ideas for technological applications, consulting with National Park Service staff and community members, researching costs, and making recommendations for project implementation. In the second season, the team began implementing some of the project ideas, including time-lapse photography, a mobile iPad lab for use in ranger-led interpretive and education programs, and a mobile interpretation kit featuring a battery-powered television screen hooked up through an adapter to a spotting scope that allows more visitors to witness and enjoy peregrine falcons nesting in the field.
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This summer, in addition to completing the roll-out of these projects, the team will brainstorm possible new uses of technology in other areas of the park, initiate digital 3-D modeling of artifacts in Acadia’s collection, and develop a simple smartphone application so that visitors to the Cadillac Mountain summit will still be able to enjoy the views on foggy days. The team will also be working with an evaluation fellow to initiate on-the-ground assessments of whether two of their projects are truly improving the visitor experience, facilitating ranger delivery of programs, and leading toward new park stewards.
Rather than shun technology altogether, Friends of Acadia and Acadia National Park are hoping to encourage park visitors to learn about and enjoy some of the exciting wonders of Acadia through technology. Hopefully, through this comfortable introduction, visitors will then feel confident to explore, turn off their devices, and develop long-term relationships to Acadia and all our public lands.
Learn more about this project at the Friends of Acadia website.