This is formal first page of the NPS Webrangers case
It seems odd to some that, with concerns about childhood obesity and nature-deficit disorder, that the National Park Service would create an interactive website for kids. Our intention is to meet children where they live, online, and encourage them to get up and get out to explore their world, whether it be in a national park or their own neighborhood. Our best hope is to raise an awareness that these national parks, currently 391 of them, belong to them and that there's a good chance that there is one pretty close to home.
We would like very much to have your feedback about the site, your ideas for new topics or new activity types. We are certainly interested in talking with potential collaborators as well as in exploring how to staff and grow the site.
Thanks, and have fun.
I took a little time to take a look at the website - first, as a guest and then I signed myself up as a webranger to see if it was any different. I did a couple activities and tried to imagine if my boys would find them interesting or not - one would, I think and one wouldn't - but I'm not sure. A couple things occurred to me, though. The first thing that occurred to me was that my kids would never find this site. They wouldn't necessarily go looking for it and I don't know how they would get there - to develop interest in the national parks - if they didn't already have some interest in the national parks to bring them there. I as a parent could bring them there, but I didn't know about it either.
The other thought I had occurred to me after I returned to the site after reading Tom's comment. He notes that their goal is to encourage kids to get out and explore the world and raise awareness of national parks...but in my brief 15 minutes or so on the site, I couldn't find out where a visitor could learn about national parks that were near them?! Where is my closest national park? I probably know it, but probably don't know it's a national park. It seems to me that if the goal is to raise awareness, then that would be a basic idea - letting kids know that national parks are not just the big ones they might hear about with geysers, etc. but that they are actually places accessible to them. Is that information/access there and I've just missed it?
I like this site a lot, though I agree with Jeanne that the Park Service needs to do a better job of getting it front and center (and to tie it more to visiting the parks, if possible). Related to this, I find myself thinking of those 4,000 kids who have finished the program. Most of them are probably what we call "influencers" or "promoters" in the biz, and I wonder whether NPS should be doing more to retain and use them. Is there a role they can play re: the site as a reward for finishing all these activities? Maybe they get access to a special area of the site where they get to preview and provide feedback on new activities before other kids get to see them at all? Maybe they get a special electronic "hotline"--i.e. a direct link to you, Tom--where they can suggest new activities and features for the site and know you will respond? Maybe there's some true social media in this special section so the kids who have finished the activities can talk with each other, attend special online presentations and the like (the likelihood that the kind of kid who takes the time to complete 40+ educational activities is going to cause any problems w/social media seems very remote, and could allow you to get your feet wetter in this area). In other words, create an additional set of features that allow this firmly established relationship with the Park Service continues to grow for years, and that allow these kids to actually help you with the rest of the tasks involved in a site like this.
To Jeanne's point, I was wondering if the Park Service has considered developing any mobile apps to accompany this program. Kids as young as eight now have their own cell phones and the ones that do are app-crazy. Seems to me that mobile apps would really let you have your cake and eat it too, i.e. reach kids with technology in a context that is more outdoor-friendly than the current offering, especially if you develop apps that are GPS-sensitive (assuming coverage has improved in the more remote areas, which I think it has--I was able to use GPS-dependent apps all over Grand Teton this summer, for example)
1) It's easy to spend other people's money, but wouldn't it be cool perhaps to collaborate with the company that makes the "Tycoon" sim games on "National Park Tycoon." The objective would be to manage a national park by balancing the caution necessary to sustain a natural environment and the desire to have people experience that environment. This has been a central theme in the Ken Burns National Parks documentary -- that if a park falls in the forest and no one is there, it makes no noise (sorry...), but that one can also be TOO successful in promoting visiting and impinge on the resources that make a park special.
2) I'm so glad that Portias raised the idea of mobile apps. For a couple of years, I've been intrigued by the potential of a mobile, GPS-enabled social network for young people to share experiences and recommendations for family vacations. The potential to empower tweens and teens as guides for their family trips is immense if they could navigate to peer-recommended activities -- hikes, photo opportunities, campgrounds...OK, even park stores.
You sounded a little sheepish about the site in your opening comment, and I really don't think you should be. We've just added a new case study on a project called WolfQuest (http://www.mediasciencelearning.com/node/87 ) where one of the interesting research findings is the extent to which its online 3-D immersive game environment and associated online community is motivating kids to visit parks and participate in outdoor activities. From what I know of the Webrangers program and how engaged kids get in it (my son has returned to it again and again, and he's not even that into nature), I'd be willing to bet that if you asked a sample of your users the same questions that WolfQuest's creators (Kate Haley Goldman & David Schaller) asked, you'd get similar responses, though I agree with Jeanne that it would be awesome to be able to, for example, end each Webrangers session (i.e. when the child opts to exit) with a plug/link to that child's local parks. Of course, I don't know what, if any, info you're allowed, by your department's regulations, to collect from users, which would obviously impact how accurate this kind of plug could be--but even if all you could plug is a park in any given child's state (randomly drawn from a database each time the child hits an exit screen), I think it would really help push that connection. AOL had great success with plugs on its sign-off screen (which you hit after you'd logged out) back in the day, and I've often wondered why more sites haven't tried this approach--there are certainly plenty of games out there with "Are you sure you want to quit?" screens that haven't seemed to alienate their users, and if the extra info you're giving is positive and useful...it might be something to ask the usability lab you'all mentioned you work with at U Maryland--I'd be curious about the state of research on this question myself.
I'm 10 and I love WebRangers.com. It's a gaming site about nature and if you beat all the games you become a ranger for the National Park Service. I like the history games the best, especially the Powder Monkey game. Webrangers is very fun and a very good site you should visit soon.
I have enjoyed visiting and exploring many of our national parks. This game is an indoor adventure that potentially encourages outdoor adventure as wells. What an informative and fascinating way to plant the seeds in children's minds to make them want to visit and explore the parks away from the computer as well. That seems like nothing but positives to me!
The challenge for many excellent resources is their dissemination. To follow-up on Jcentury's comment, perhaps the National Park Service could consider creating a link off of their overview page for each park site. Many students utlilze those sites in the course of assigned school projects.
I checked out the site and am impressed. My immediate gut feeling was that there was too much reading for the stated age group 5-12. If audio was available, I did not figure that out. It is very impressive that there are 94K users already. So, perhaps my concern about the reading is not warranted.
We have been wanting to add narration and more sound to our activities, but have not had the funding to do that yet. Interestingly, we have registered visitors from 134 countries speaking 67 languages (as indicated by language settings on their computers.) I have heard from a teacher in Germany who uses WebRangers as part of her 8th grade "American English" studies and from a French mother who used the site for English practice with her kids. We are currently add about 120 new registrants per day, seven days/week. On average 7 complete all of the required activities and receive their WebRanger patch in the mail. Interestingly, it takes some a while to get their mind around the concept that we need a postal mailing address to send the actual patch. When we asked for just an address, we got too many eMail addresses. I guess they thought the patch would show up in their CD drawer....
We will be distributing 750,000 WebRangers rack cards to park visitors this summer. In addition, the Kids link on the front page of NPS.gov goes directly to WebRangers. Many of the 392 park websites link to WebRangers from their "For Kids" sections. All new Junior Ranger booklets distributed in parks have the URL. Word is spreading among teachers youth groups and homeschoolers about the site. WebRangers received a mention in a syndicated column Taking the Kids entitled "Junior Ranger Programs Captivate Young Visitors. OhMyGov.com had a very nice review "National Park Servicec Impresses Online with WebRangers site." I would love to hear suggestions for further marketing. If we only had the budget that the 2010 Census apparently has....
WebRangers had a very busy spring with more and more teachers using the site to augment their regular curricula. The site now has more than 128,000 registered members and over 6,100 have completed all of the activities required to receive their WebRangers patch in the mail. We have added a number of new activities, most notably, Investigating Global Connections, an activity that explores some of the effects of climate change. It is the first of three activities created in conjunction with and funded by NASA. We are fortunate this summer to be hosting a Student Conservation Association intern who is crating a teachers' resource guide for WebRangers that provides alignments with national standards of learning as well as suggestions for using WebRangers in the classroom. We hope to have that live before the beginning of the school year. In early August, due to popular demand, we will be releasing a new look to the Ranger Station that will allow users more customization and an enhanced reward system. Good times.
The new Ranger Stations are now available. We'd like to have your comments.
I generally recoil at the mention of online experiences meant to garner interest in an outdoor experience, but after registering and exploring WebRangers, I am very impressed. I think the ability to personalize the site, and earn rewards for learning is the perfect way to engage and educate kids, but not try and replace the outdoor experience! I agree with others that there might be a more explicit link between activities and the various parks where kids might encounter the natural resources that are the focus of the activity. That way you don't have to worry about capturing the kid's ID or location. Just say, "hey, did you enjoy learning about eagles? Here are some parks where you can get out and go look for them!"
OK, so I registered as a guest and tried a few of the activities.
It did not ask my age, so I don't know if there are different activities for different age groups. The activities that I tried were not at all challenging.
First off I am surprised the the NPS has a section on people, but does not include people such as Teddy Roosevelt or John Muir (amongst others.)
Quite a lot of the questions were general nature or animal questions that do not seem very tightly related to what's going on in the parks.
The Wild Center has a Naturalist Patch that visitors can earn by answering some questions, but our questions are much more open ended. I realize that this type of answer is much more difficult to score, but it encourages thinking rather than fact finding.
When I answered the eyesight question related to eagles with the simpler "sight" answer it was not recognized as correct.
I found a couple of errors.
The ocean matching game comments on anemones living in tubes is not correct - some anemones do live in tubes, but most do not.
In the Who Am I the clues discuss walking about on forest floors and being able to withdraw a head, but the only turtle pictured is a sea turtle which does neither.
Sorry - I did not find these activities to be very stimulating, and it did not encourage me to get outside and enjoy nature.
My son and I talked about his thoughts on the web ranger web page, and he offered several suggestions. Before I list them, you might want to know that he's 11 and earned many junior ranger badges in parks. We learned about the web ranger site a year or so ago and he logged on right away, printed, and laminated his Web Ranger card and keeps it in his wallet. After a short time on the web rangers site however, he lost interest and hasn't used it since. He is still an avid junior ranger and loves to go to new parks and earn badges. As he listed his suggestions to me, it became clear that he expected the web rangers site to be more clearly linked to actual parks and their junior ranger programs. Here are his suggestions:
Add place on the web site that allows you to log the junior ranger badges you earned in a park. Add a place where you can download, or open the junior ranger book from parks so that if you don't have time to do it in the park you can finish it at home and get your badge on line. If your family can't afford to take you to a park, there should be a video tour of the park so you can complete the junior ranger book and still get your badge. Add a place where you can write about your experience in a real park when you come home from your vacation. It would be fun to read other kids stories about parks too. Also, include a link to the web site that sells the junior ranger hat, vest, and other equipment.
A few factors other may play into his loss of interest in the web rangers site. First, a large portion of his homework is on-line writing papers, doing research, and completing Study Island assignments which come with their own games. After an hour or so online he is ready to do something more active out of the desk and chair, and away from the computer screen. Second, he owns an iPodTouch loaded with music and games. He much prefers playing screen games on this hand-held device because he is not forced to sit at a desk. He can more comfortably curl up on the couch, or in bed, or in the car, and play his games while listening to music and stories. Sitting at the computer feels like work. Perhaps he is an old-fashioned kid in that way - he spends much more of his time in physical activities than with screen-based activities.
From my perspective, the fun web sites that seem to keep kids interest longer are those that facilitate a chat component. My daughter learned to type after she started playing a web game (Horse Isle) that included anonymous chatting among participants. They could share resources, solve problems, discuss their progress in the games, and collaborate on finding solutions. You might also want to check out the NASA INSPIRE online program. It includes links to video and other resources from real and current NASA projects, and it offers regular live chats for students hosted by scientists. It keeps you coming back for more because of the social interaction and opportunities for real participation.