Agents of Discovery: App engages youth along historic trails in Bitterroot

by Kristine Komar, President, Bitterroot Cultural Heritage Trust

Two years ago, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Conservation Education program in the Washington Office created an opportunity for USFS sites across the country to opt into a pilot program with the Agents of Discovery app. Geared toward fourth grade age youth and older, but fun for all ages, Agents of Discovery is an educational mobile gaming platform that uses augmented reality to get youth outdoors, moving, and learning. For each mission completed, users can earn an award and enter to win prizes.  

The Bitterroot Cultural Heritage Trust works to highlight and interpret the three national trails in the Bitterroot Valley—the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail and the Lewis and Clark and Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trails—and leapt at the opportunity to garner this tool to better engage youth and families in our community. 

In mid-June 2019, four Agents of Discovery Missions in the Bitterroot Valley went live at Travelers’ Rest State Park (a high potential historic site on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail), Historic St. Mary’s Mission, River Park in the City of Hamilton (featuring the Nez Perce Nee-Me-Poo National Historic Trail), and a mission developed by the Bitterroot National Forest at Lake Como, a popular summer day use recreation area.

The Conservation Education program pilot offer came with 50% of the funding in place. The Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail (administered by the USFS), the Bitterroot National Forest, and Travelers Rest Preservation Heritage Association contributed funds to make the project possible. Each mission was developed by a unique group of volunteers at host sites. “We’re so excited to add Agents of Discovery to our educational tool box,” said Molly Stockdale, Executive Director of Travelers’ Rest Preservation and Heritage Association.

Children use the Agents of Discovery app at Travelers’ Rest State Park. (Photo Credit: Victoria Miera, AmeriCorps)

“Nearly 2,500 school children come to Travelers’ Rest State Park for field trips each year, and now we can invite them to come back to the park with their families and share a rich interpretive experience on any day of the week,” Stockdale said. “The app reinforces what they’ve learned on their field trip and adds a layer of place-based education to their next visit.” 

Kristine Komar, of the Bitterroot Cultural Heritage Trust, worked with Sandra Broncheau-McFarland and Roger Peterson, staff of Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail (NPNHT), to develop the concept for the River Park mission and then build it. Partners Ravalli County Museum and the Mayor and City Council of Hamilton were instrumental in ensuring the success of the app as well. “The trail has embraced technology and is eager to offer engaging and powerful learning experiences to visitors of all ages as they explore their national forests. We are especially grateful to all of our partners who helped make this possible,” said Broncheau-McFarland.

As a group, all four mission sites worked together to create matching posters, selfie spots cutouts, rack cards, and collectable pins featuring each agent. Itse-Ye-Ye for the Nez Perce focused app at River Park; Tomaso, Father Ravalli’s cat at St. Mary’s Mission; Seaman, Captain Lewis’ Newfoundland dog at Travelers’ Rest; and Agent Mallard Duck at Lake Como. We are particularly proud of Agent Itse-Ye-Ye. Her name means coyote in Nez Perce and she is clad in her regalia: a fan, shawl, corn husk bag, and shell earrings. We also love that she is female as most of the other agents are males. 

Kids hold up a poster of Agent Tomaso, Father Ravalli’s cat at St. Mary’s Mission. (Photo Credit: Historic St. Mary’s Mission)

“At St. Mary’s Mission, Tomaso (a curled up plush sleeping kitty in Farther Ravalli’s cabin) has always been able to gain the interest of young people. Now he serves as our Mission’s Agent and provides fun to go along with the learning,” reported Colleen Meyer, Executive Director at the Mission. “It’s fun to see families drive in, download the Agents of Discovery app, and follow Tomaso as he guides them on their adventure. Kids report enjoying the process of searching and investigating to answer the questions Tomaso poses.”

If you are an interpreter—or outdoor educator or a practitioner in any related field where a learning tool like Discovery Agents can be used—our advice is to jump in, because the app is extremely flexible and can be used in many ways. For example, it’s possible to have a new mission (game) every hour, day, week, or month, and it’s easy to see how the app can work for special events and vacation weeks.

Most missions are in parks or other outdoor recreation sites that are perfect for a picnic, hike, or swim, especially for families on a budget. We haven’t yet had the opportunity to involve students in mission development, but we plan to since the Conservation Education Office and the NPNHT just renewed our access for another year. Stay tuned!

Missions are free to download and play, and once downloaded do not require Wi-Fi or a data connection to function. Learn more:

Unless otherwise indicated, all material in Pathways Across America is public domain. All views expressed herein are perspectives of individuals working on behalf of the National Trails System and do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of the Federal agencies.