Southern Utah University widened its scope for students by joining an educational alliance with three neighboring national parks and monuments last week.

Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument and Pipe Spring National Monument, which are all within 60 miles of the Cedar City school, have teamed up to allow students more hands-on opportunities. The parks also stand to benefit from increased use and the implementation of student projects and research.

"National parks have always been outdoor classrooms, ever since Yellowstone in 1872, this just formalizes our ability to do things and continue to make sure they are genuine outdoor classrooms," said Tom Haraden, assistant chief of interpretation and visitor services at Zion.

In addition to the myriad resources available at the national park sites, he said students can experience human and natural history, birds, geology, physics and more.

The Alliance for Education is expected to directly impact the study of geological and ecological systems, spanning a variety of academic interests. All four partners in the new Zion Park Group are committed to protect their natural resources through education and research.

SUU President Michael T. Benson said during a ceremony announcing the agreement that the school is in a prime location, "having five national park units within a two-hour drive."

"Not many universities can say that," Haraden said.

In addition to the study of geological and ecological systems, the partnership will continue to assist students in a smattering of fields, including public administration, hospitality, Web design and computer engineering, marketing and promotions, outdoor recreation and others.

SUU has promised to support the group by helping the National Park Service with visitor education efforts, putting qualified NPS staff in adjunct faculty positions, allowing NPS scientists to access university research facilities and assisting in data collection.

In turn, the Zion Park Group will provide student internships, give students access to ongoing projects and developments, share fieldwork with SUU faculty and provide park access for class activities, seminars and training.

"This partnership speaks to SUU's continued commitment to providing unique educational opportunities that capitalize on the university's business relationships, local resources and surroundings — taking education far beyond the walls of the classroom," said SUU spokeswoman Jen Burt. She said this partnership is evidence of the success found by working with Bryce Canyon National Park over the past two years in a similar agreement.

The five-year agreement can be renewable upon completion if all parties see fit, Haraden said.

"This is the way government should work and this is the way agencies should work together," he said.