How can scientists and scholars engage busy park superintendents and the general public with the results of their research? Several programs in the National Park Service (NPS) are mandated to provide scientific information in different forms: peer-reviewed papers, quick references for superintendents, reports to managers, and articles geared toward a general audience. How can we make these documents and their data more useful? How might we centralize storage of this information and make retrieval and use easy for a variety of audiences
Figure 1. The two virtual learning centers (above and below) have a similar look and feel, and a nearly identical navigation structure as shown here.
A collaboration among 51 national park units in five NPS Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) networks, three Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Units (CESUs), and six nonprofit partners has developed an approach to answering these questions: using virtual Research Learning Centers as a means of storing, organizing, and reporting information that results from science conducted in the National Park System. Based on the Research Learning Center program created under the Natural Resource Challenge, the Greater Yellowstone Science Learning Center (GYSLC) and the Learning Center of the American Southwest (LCAS) maintain Web sites that provide quick, easy access to the most recent scientific information for natural and cultural resources found in their member parks. Designed to reach a varied audience (agency managers and resource specialists, university scientists and students, educators and guides, media representatives, members of the public, and other stakeholders), data are presented in a hierarchy of increasing detail, allowing users to access both general concepts and project-specific results.
The virtual Research Learning Center concept grew out of practical need and fiscal necessity. First, the Web sites of national park units are, by design, geared primarily toward providing visitor services information, channeled through Web pages organized by park unit. Although resource information is often available, it can be of limited depth and scope, and difficult to access. In particular, full-length documents, such as study plans, completion reports, reports to managers, and annual reports are seldom available on these sites, and can be obtained only by request from the author or a library. Finally, park Web sites are limited to describing resources within the specific, bounded areas of their units. To gain a regional perspective, users often must piece together bits of information gleaned from numerous sites, making cohesive knowledge or understanding difficult to achieve.
Designed to act as a complement to park Web sites, the virtual Research Learning Centers take a resource-centric, rather than park-centric, approach to information organization and communication; that is, they are organized around resources, not simply park units, even though information is also assessable by park unit. Under this framework, resources no longer “stop” at a park’s boundaries. They can be viewed in a regionally holistic manner that encourages exploration at multiple levels of scale and detail, and that highlights the significance and connectivity of smaller parks with their larger neighbors. We also believe that the resource-centric approach will help to de-emphasize the artificial boundaries between “cultural” and “natural” resources. Because Research Learning Centers are designed to be interdisciplinary, one of the exciting goals and challenges for the GYSLC and LCAS is to go beyond simply making information on natural and cultural resources available to exploring their interaction and interdependence. As such, these new Web sites present an opportunity to interweave the Natural Resource Challenge (NPS 1999) and the Vanishing Treasures Initiative (NPS Intermountain Region 1998).
The virtual Research Learning Centers … are organized around resources, not simply park units.… Under this framework, resources no longer “stop” at a park’s boundaries. They can be viewed in a regionally holistic manner that … highlights the significance and connectivity of smaller parks with their larger neighbors.
Creating a Web-based “one-stop shop” for science outreach was more fiscally attainable for parks within the Greater Yellowstone I&M Network than trying to staff a physical Research Learning Center and develop programs in each park. Accordingly, the parks led the way in developing the GYSLC, a virtual center that is accessible, interactive, and easily updated and has multiple layers of information products to meet the needs of different audiences. In 2005, Canon U.S.A., Inc., agreed to fund this prototype effort through the Eyes on Yellowstone program, administered by the Yellowstone Park Foundation. This funding paid for staff and partners to design the look and architecture of the Web site and develop initial content, and also supported Web hosting on a dot-org site—largely to accommodate the non-NPS partners who will directly contribute to the site, and to avoid overburdening the bandwidth of the parks’ official Web sites. Though promotion for the public rollout is yet to come, the GYSLC is available now at www.greateryellowstonescience.org.
Subsequently, parks within the Sonoran Desert, Southern Plains, Southern Colorado Plateau, and Chihuahuan Desert I&M networks, which share many similar resources, collaborated to create the Learning Center of the American Southwest. This Web site, still in development, is expected to be launched in fall 2008 at www.southwestlearning.org. To facilitate user familiarity, the two sites share a nearly identical navigation structure (fig. 1, above).
One of the exciting goals and challenges for the GYSLC and LCAS is to go beyond simply making information on natural and cultural resources available to exploring their interaction and interdependence.
Folts-Zettner, T., T. Olliff, C. McIntyre, and T. Porter. 2008. Case Study: Using virtual Research Learning Centers for disseminating science information about national park resources. Park Science 25(1):56–59.
Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/ParkScience/archive/PDF/Article_PDFs/ParkScience25(1)Summer2008_56-59_Folts-Zettner_et_al_2594.pdf.