Archived Outdoors

Science program goes statewide: ecoEXPLORE program for kids now available in N.C. State Parks

An ecoEXPLORE participant captures her observation of a mushroom. N.C. Arboretum photo An ecoEXPLORE participant captures her observation of a mushroom. N.C. Arboretum photo

A program that’s been getting Western North Carolina kids outside since 2016 is now a statewide offering, with a whirlwind tour of 10 North Carolina state parks over the next couple weeks celebrating ecoEXPLORE’s arrival at all 41 park units. 

“There’s a lot of benefits to being outdoors, and it’s something that we’re seeing less and less in adults and children,” said Jonathan Marchal, youth education manager at the N.C. Arboretum in Asheville. “A lot of times it’s almost like a competition — you can go outside and be screen-free, or you can go indoors and be completely immersed in a screen. I think one approach that is helpful is utilizing those items like smartphones as tools to explore the environment, and not just as tools to explore the environment but to engage kids in doing conservation work.”

That’s just what ecoEXPLORE, a program the arboretum developed, aims to do. 

Originally launched through a grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, ecoEXPLORE encourages kids to go outside, make observations about nature, and record those observations with a smartphone camera. Participants earn points for each observation, and the points can then be cashed in for prizes like binoculars, butterfly nets and flower presses. They can earn badges, too. Each change in season brings with it a change in the badge that could potentially be claimed. Right now it’s herpetology season — participants who complete the herpetology challenge, which includes making six observations of reptiles or amphibians and attending an upcoming event at the arboretum, will get the Herpetology Field Badge. 

It’s a combination of self-directed time outside and guided programming with arboretum staff, and it’s not just the kids who think it’s great. 

“We have parents just as involved in asking questions right along with the kids, taking pictures of plants and animals right along with them — in programming, but also when they do things on their own,” said Marchal. 

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It’s a win-win for the kids and for the scientific community. While the ecoEXPLORErs get the benefit of time outdoors and hands-on science education, science benefits from the myriad observations the students log. Staff look at all the observations the kids send in, and the ones deemed to be high enough quality get uploaded to iNaturalist, a mobile app and website that catalogues citizen science observations. So far, ecoEXPLORE participants have provided more than 10,000 iNaturalist observations. 

“It’s pretty tremendous,” said Marchal. “It’s a testament to how kids can not just learn about conservation but also take an active role in it.”

Since 2016, about 2,000 kids have enrolled in the ecoEXPLORE program, and of those Marchal estimates that 100 to 150 are currently active participants. But until now, the program has been relegated to Western North Carolina, with most participants residing in Buncombe County, where the arboretum is located. Now, kids across the state will be able to become ecoEXPLORErs. 

“The state parks are just an ideal complement to our program,” said Marchal. 


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An ecoEXPLORE participant displays a badge she earned alongside a box turtle found during her adventures.


A $1 million grant from the North Carolina GlaxoSmithKline Foundation will fund the first five years of the statewide rollout. The first step in the expansion is to designate all 41 state parks as ecoEXPLORE “hotspots” — safe and biodiverse areas that kids can go to make observations. EcoEXPLORE will also piggyback on the state park’s existing Junior Ranger program, so that kids can earn points and badges in the ecoEXPLORE program as they’re working toward their Junior Ranger badge. In recognition of the partnership, the state parks are releasing a new edition of the Junior Ranger guide, which will include information about ecoEXPLORE. 

In the long run, though, ecoEXPLORE wants to have far more than just 41 new hotspots in North Carolina — the grant includes funding to develop 10 per county, meaning a total of 1,000 hotspots in all 100 counties. 

Another prong of the expansion is to develop additional ecoEXPLORE hubs — places like the Arboretum that can offer staff and on-site programming for kids. The Greensboro Science Center will become the first new ecoEXPLORE hub following a planned rollout this fall, and the arboretum is also hoping to create hubs at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh and the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education, as well as looking for other organizations to serve Charlotte and other parts of the piedmont. 

Right now, the arboretum is focused on the North Carolina expansion, but it’s been fielding feelers from outside state lines as well. 

“We’re focused on rolling out the state, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t already asking us,” said Marchal. “We’ve had interest from multiple places that are outside of North Carolina. The program overall is highly replicable and highly cost-effective. Those two things definitely attract attention. I do believe that in the future it’s something that I think could be very easily implemented outside of North Carolina.”

If that were to transpire, ecoEXPLORE would join TRACK Trails as another locally developed program gaining a larger following. Developed by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation to make outdoor exploration more accessible for families by identifying kid-friendly trails and providing age-appropriate interpretive information about the natural environment, TRACK Trails started out as a North Carolina thing and now has sites from the shore of Lake Washington in Seattle to Nags Head, North Carolina — and everywhere in between. 

The similarities are not lost on Marchal, who said that he’s worked with TRACK Trails to develop an ecoEXPLORE brochure and discussed the possibility of existing TRACK Trails doubling as ecoEXPLORE hotspots. 

“We’re all working toward the same goal of getting more kids and families outside and active and learning about the natural world, so it’s great that everybody’s been able to be so collaborative,” he said. 

In addition to the GlaxoSmithKline funding, the ecoEXPLORE expansion has received support from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and from the Duke Energy Foundation, as well as from some private donors. The largest piece, the $1 million GlaxoSmithKline grant, is mostly for the ecoEXPLORE expansion but will also support two other arboretum initiatives — Project EXPLORE, which encourages teachers to do citizen science on school grounds, and Project OWL, which develops online curriculum that correlates with the North Carolina essential standards so that teachers can more easily include the outdoors in their lessons. 

“We’re currently in the process of getting those two initiatives to be able to go statewide as well,” said Marchal. 

With all these programs, the goal is to give families a quality experience outside, as well as boost female participation in the sciences, as research shows that girls start to lose interest in such careers around middle school, Marchal said. In the future, he’d love to develop a program that uses students who have aged out of ecoEXPLORE as mentors and role models for younger kids. 

These efforts matter not just to the kids themselves, he said, but to science as a whole. 

“By going out there and photographing a ruby-throated hummingbird, that child is not just getting a chance to really look at that wildlife and observe it, but they’re also contributing that record of that organism at that time to our biological records,” he said. “As our climate and environments change, it’s going to be pretty important to know when and where things happened in the past.”


Get exploring

The new expansion of the N.C. Arboretum’s ecoEXPLORE program to a statewide audience will be the focus of celebration at 10 upcoming events held in state parks from mountains to coast, the first two of which will be in Western North Carolina. 

Chimney Rock State Park. From 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday, July 8, family-friendly science activities and demonstrations will include a salamander meander and live animal program. 

Gorges State Park. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 9, the park will offer family-friendly activities and demonstrations.

Additional events will be: Wednesday, July 10, at Mount Mitchell State Park; Thursday, July 11, at Crowders Mountain State Park; Saturday, July 13, at Hanging Rock State Park; Sunday, July 14, at Jordan Lake State Park; Monday, July 15, at William B. Umstead State Park; Thursday, July 18, at Jockey’s Ridge State Park; Friday, July 19, at Cliffs of the Neuse State Park and Saturday, July 20, at Carolina Beach State Park. 

Participation in ecoEXPLORE is free. To sign up, visit

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