Blue Ridge rocks

Ranger-led school program focuses on national parks
Shenandoah National Park Ranger Regina Cardwell speaks to this fifth grade science class at E.Wilson Morrison Elementary School on Monday about rocks in the Shenandoah National Park. Rich Cooley/Daily
Josh Domino, 11, of Front Royal, inspects an igneous rock during science class at E. Wilson Morrison Elementary School on Monday. Rich Cooley/Daily
Noah Kinsey, 11, of Front Royal, tries on a firefighter uniform that is worn inside the Shenandoah National Park during class on Monday. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Asked if they had ever seen Shenandoah National Park, some of Jill Alicie’s fifth graders at E. Wilson Elementary School in Front Royal knew they had. Others weren’t too sure until Park Ranger Regina Cardwell pointed out that Skyline Drive also weaves its way through the park.

There’s more to the national park than they realize, she said. In addition to its hiking trails and scenic drive along the Blue Ridge, it’s home to various forms of wildlife, including the globally rare, endangered Shenandoah salamander. The park provides examples of all three rock types. It also requires deliberate acts of preservation to keep it going.

“We have this beautiful place,” Cardwell told the class. “We need people to take care of it.”

“Not only do we protect what we have, but we preserve it for future generations,” she said.

Calling for volunteers, she illustrated through a show of costumes some of the many jobs required to keep a national park going. Rangers aren’t the only ones who work in the park, she said. Firefighters keep lightning strikes from becoming forest fires, and technical rescue teams aid those who get hurt while visiting or working in the park.

“There’s so much science in a place like Shenandoah National Park,” Cardwell said. “[There’s] so much to learn.”

The park has offered ranger-led programs for several years, but Alicie said it wasn’t as easy to hold programs like this before she turned her focus to science. Previously a teacher of all the subjects, she said covering one subject allows her to keep a topic going all day.

On Monday, Cardwell gave three presentations on rocks of the Blue Ridge, and she planned a fourth for Tuesday morning.

Rocks are a part of the fifth grade Standards of Learning curriculum, but Alicie admitted to speeding up her lesson plans in order to accommodate Cardwell while it was still winter.

Winter is when park rangers visit area schools to teach on curriculum topics. During the spring and fall, the park plays host, teaching in outdoor classrooms and even footing the transportation bill for Title 1 schools.

“Are you kidding?” Alicie asked, overhearing the good news after class had ended and her students moved next door to study a different subject. “That’s awesome.”

Planning field trips is one of the biggest challenges for Title 1 schools, which have a high population of students from low-income households.

A nice compromise for her is having speakers come to the school instead, Alicie said.

“They can see scientists aren’t just Bill Nye in a lab,” she said.

The proximity of Shenandoah National Park benefits students who don’t travel out of the area very often, she said. It brings the world to them.

Last week, Alicie prepared students for Cardwell’s presentation, and the information stuck with students like 10-year-old Katie Alicie and Taylor Thompson, and 11-year-old Schae Meredith.

Calling the lesson “entertaining” and “interesting,” the girls agreed it was nice to see and hold examples of the rocks they had learned about in class.

Of the planet’s three types of rock — sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous — Schae said she liked metamorphic the best because, by heat or pressure, it changes.

All three had been to the park before and said they would like to visit again now that they know more about it.

Remembering Cardwell’s description of a mountain ridge called Stony Man, which resembles a giant forehead, nose and long, arboreus beard, Schae said, “I want to see the face.”

“Me too,” Katie said.

Next year, the National Park Service will celebrate its 100th anniversary, so Cardwell issued an invitation for students to attend what park employees around the country have already started planning for August 2016.

“Do you know what other national parks belong to you?” she asked the class.

Schae was quick with her answer.

“All of them.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or

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