NOME, Alaska -- "How many states have you been to?" "What does it look like in California?" "What does the Army do?" "What does the Army Corps of Engineers do?"

Those were some of the questions fourth-grade students asked Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, during an outreach event to promote the Every Kid in a Park program Sept. 14 at Nome Elementary School.

Darcy was in Alaska Sept. 12 to 14, visiting U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' project sites in the northern part of the state.

Appointed to her position by President Barack Obama in August 2009, Darcy is responsible for establishing policy direction and providing supervision of Department of the Army functions relating to all aspects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Civil Works program. Some of those responsibilities include programs for conservation and development of the nation's water and wetland resources, flood control, navigation and shore protection.

Nome was Darcy's second stop on her tour. Other stops included project site visits in Barrow and Unalakleet, with flyovers of the villages of Shishmaref and Kivalina.

Following a tour of the Port of Nome with Corps and city representatives, Darcy headed to the school to talk to students about Every Kid in a Park.

In its second year, the program is a presidential initiative that gives fourth-graders and their families free passes to all national parks for a year. The purpose of Every Kid in a Park is to bridge the growing disconnect between the next generation and the great outdoors, and to inspire children to become future stewards of the nation's natural and historic treasures.

There are more than 400 national parks in the U.S., Darcy told the students.

"Eight of the 20 biggest ones in the whole country are right here in Alaska," she said. "Not only are they big, but they're also beautiful."

One of the best things about the pass is it is for fourth-graders and their entire family, Darcy said.

"So your parents, brothers and sisters can all go with you," she said. "One of the reasons the president thought this was such a great idea is because we have such a beautiful country, and you all are pretty special because you not only live in the biggest state in the country, but in my view, one of the most beautiful."

Darcy relayed a few of her own personal stories to the students. One of her most enjoyable jobs, she said, was as a former elementary school teacher in Massachusetts.

One of the satisfying things about her current job, she said, is being able to "do things like this -- to come to Alaska."

Darcy also expressed her enthusiasm for being outdoors by sharing a story about hiking and biking recently in California with her niece and nephew.

"When you're in the fourth grade, maybe in the eighth grade or maybe when you're in high school, you'll be able to tell people about how beautiful and wonderful the outdoor experience is for you, your family and for everyone else."

Following her remarks, Darcy and other Corps' representatives accompanied the fourth-graders onto the playground for a picture and to hand out the free park passes to the students.

PARTICIPATING AGENCIES
The Corps is one of several agencies participating in the Every Kid in a Park program. Other participating agencies include the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Last year, the Corps hosted about 7,000 fourth-graders and their families at lakes and rivers across the country.

About 250 Corps' sites are participating in the Every Kid in a Park program and provide an opportunity for students to enjoy the great outdoors and learn about the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, that goes into managing the nation's waterways.

Last year, the Corps also received eight transportation grants, which allowed schools to take about 2,500 students on field trips to Corps' sites.

TO OBTAIN A PASS
Fourth-graders can visit the Every Kid in a Park website at www.everykidinapark.gov and complete a fun, educational activity to obtain and print their pass.

Students can trade in their paper pass for a more durable pass at participating federal sites nationwide listed on the website.

The pass grants free entry for fourth-graders and up to three accompanying adults or an entire non-commercial vehicle for drive-in parks at more than 2,000 federal sites nationwide.

The pass features a new design this year and is valid until Aug. 31, 2017.