Monthly Archives: July 2014

What’s New in the Sky?

Here in the south when we go outside in the summertime we have to put up with a number of things. The heat and humidity are a force to be reckoned with and are often the topic of conversation. Then if you spend any time at all outside you start hearing the buzz of the many insects. Some of those insects can be very annoying. A new buzzing sound may soon join the insect chorus. It’s the sound of unmanned aerial systems (UAVs).

Sometimes referred to as drones, they are gaining popularity here in the United States. Not necessarily new, the convergence of different technologies has produced units that are more than just remote controlled aircraft. The big attraction is being able to capture airborne video and still images. That ability is also one of the biggest issues related to UAVs.

The loss of privacy is foremost on the minds of many. There have been reports of UAVs flying over homes and generally being a nuisance. States such as Tennessee have passed legislation to protect the privacy of an individual on their property. The Federal Aviation Administration rules related to their operation are vague and will probably be tightened up this fall. The National Park Service has banned their use on areas they manage because they were becoming a problem at highly visited sites.

With that said, many sectors such as agriculture, construction, and landscaping are embracing this technology because it offers the ability to see their work areas in a whole new way. For example, flying over fields allows a farmer to see if an area has not been irrigated or if an invasive plant has started to grow among the crops. Another example would be where a landscaper takes an aerial photo of a property and uses that image to illustrate to the landowner the work to be done.

Like other technologies, the good or the bad lies in how the operator uses it. Interpreters could make use of UAVs to show our visitors something they might not ordinarily be able to see. They also have utility for things such as search and rescue. Recently a Wisconsin man who suffers from dementia was quickly found alive in a field by a UAV after traditional methods could not locate him after a couple of days.

The time we are in now with UAVs reminds me of the time before computers or the Internet were widely used. We tried to imagine what they would be good for and how they would change our lives. Some will say that we would still be better off without certain technologies. That may be true to some extent. But hopefully, we will use the wisdom gained from the past to guide us into a useful future for UAVs.

Categories: General | Leave a comment

Travels with Sandy the Frog

Moultrie GA

Sandy researches his roots at the genealogy library in Moultrie, GA.

Many of you have probably heard of the children’s book Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown. The story of the flattened boy inspires teachers to recreate flat versions of their students. They are sent to friends and family that return them with pictures and stories of the places they have traveled. Last summer, Sandy Creek Nature Center flattened mascot Sandy the Frog and decided to see how far he could travel. The goal was to get visitors to take Flat Sandy on their trips and send pictures back of places they traveled.

Some of you may have met a not so flat version of Sandy at the RIW 14 in Alabama. He and Perky had a great time meeting each other. Since then, Sandy has traveled to fourteen states and two countries as well as travels in his home state! We have documented his travels by posting pictures on a map that our visitors can see as they visit our center. We also started an album on Facebook to share photos of Sandy’s adventures.

As interpreters, we want to create connections, share information and lead others to new experiences. Can taking a paper frog on your next vacation really do those things? Of course! Pulling out a paper (or plush) frog and taking pictures with it is a great conversation starter! People are usually curious and want to know what you are doing and why. Explaining about Flat Sandy gives you the opportunity to talk about the nature center, different places you’ve traveled and even about what types of frogs people have back home. Our friends, families and visitors that take Flat Sandy with them are usually traveling to new places and gaining new experiences. Taking Flat Sandy gives them an outlet to share their stories of where they’ve gone and what they’ve done on their adventures.


Create your own Sandy to take on your adventures.

If you have any end of summer travel plans, you can make your own Flat Sandy. We’d love to hear your stories and adventures! Visit to find out more!

Categories: General, Interpretation tools | Leave a comment

Connections Matter: To CEO’s, to Job Hunters and to Interpreters

Over 15 years ago, I worked as a writer for a magazine, primarily related to food and cooking, but with a little travel thrown in for good measure. As happens in the world of journalism, I was often given stories I had little previous experience with—an article about the soothing power of bubble baths was one, but that’s a perfume-filled story that I won’t repeat.

A more fitting story was the idea of getting outside to experience the natural world. The gist: getting exercise while enjoying the out-of-doors gave you a bigger bang for your exercise buck. You enjoyed an experience in nature and still burned those pesky calories.

Though at the time bird-watching had never held much genuine interest for me, it was a popular pastime and provided a ready opportunity to get outside in the most urban landscape or the wilds of a national park and still have a good experience. I enrolled in an “after dark” class at the local college to learn more. In so doing, I got to know the instructor and we discussed the topic of my article on multiple occasions. The article was published in 1998.

Alabama Birding Trails logo

Did you know the state bird of Alabama, pictured here as part of the Alabama Birding Trails logo, is the Northern Flicker?

Jump forward to 2011. My career changed completely and I am now a tourism consultant working on regional and statewide nature tourism projects in Alabama. In a meeting with the Alabama Tourism Department on a separate project, the topic of birding in Alabama came up and we discovered that the consultant who had been working to develop a series of birding trails throughout the state was no longer involved and a new project lead was needed.

Serendipity for sure. But here’s the takeaway: I used the knowledge I had gained from writing that article to help secure the contract, and I had kept in touch with that bird-watching instructor through the years and invited him to be a part of our team. It worked out ideally for all of us—he had a very large project fall in his lap and I had the expert needed for a project I never imagined I’d be involved with.

Make sure and develop connections—you never know when you’ll need someone to design a great interpretive museum for you. Or when they’ll need someone to lead a walk through the state park with a visiting dignitary or want a consultation on a project that inspires you.

Use LinkedIn. Use Facebook. Be a writer for an NAI blog. Be a part of the interpretation community as more than an interpreter for your facility. Loving your job is critical to doing a good job—particularly when you’re talking about the job of interpretation. But you are more than a facility or a park; you are an interpreter.

As an interpreter, you want what you are interpreting to be front-and-center, not you. But sometimes, you need to be interpreted, too. And who better than you to do the job! Keep an updated resume—it isn’t something you should do only when looking for a new job. It is a smart way to keep track of just what you do, to think about those things you’ve learned on the job that now seem like second nature. It can prove useful during annual reviews—remembering what you do and categorizing the way you want it can help drive your career in the direction you want. Writing your resume and keeping it updated allows you to do the interpreting of who you are. Busy scanning in old photos of your facility for posterity? That’s not busy-work. That’s archiving and cataloging historic documents. If you don’t define what you do, someone else surely will.

And, of course, add those things to your resume that come with a built-in definition. Become certified. Take courses in history, or natural sciences or theater. Never stop learning—and, whenever you can, make that learning something you can document on your resume. It will help you during job evaluations; it will help you when looking for a new job—and, most importantly, it will help you be a better interpreter.

About Joe: Joe Watts is a passionate proponent of nature tourism in Alabama and is currently working with the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development on several tourism-related projects, including the Alabama Birding Trails. He recently became a Certified Interpretive Guide and still remembers being enthralled by the stories of a Park Ranger during a visit to Alcatraz Island 20 years ago.

Categories: Jobs / Professional Development | Leave a comment

Do you tweet?

Twitter has roughly a billion registered users, and 255 million monthly active users worldwide, according to the website Digital Marketing Ramblings.  The site also reveals that Americans who use Twitter are mostly younger folks (think teens-twenties). I personally stayed away from Twitter for a long time just because the format of the site confused and intimidated me – why limit the number of characters? What kind of content am I supposed to post? What exactly is a “hashtag”?

Cindy Carpenter began to answer that last question in her recent blog post about Instagram (which is kind of like Twitter, with pictures) but just as a refresher, here are some Twitter definitions for you, excerpted from an article at

Follower – On Twitter, you “follow” another user to see his or her updates on your Twitter home page, and they follow you to see yours. This is the basic social relationship of Twitter. If you have more followers, your updates reach and potentially influence more people. Social connections on Twitter are not symmetrical — that is, even if you follow someone he or she may choose not to follow you back.

Tweet – Each message you send out to your followers through Twitter is called a “tweet.” It works as a verb, as well; you tweet a message. Twitter is one big network for delivering tweets to people, and by fault, tweets are public and searchable. Each tweet must be 140 characters or less or else it won’t be published.

Retweet – Twitter is all about sharing things that your followers might find useful, interesting, or entertaining. The “retweet” is a manifestation of this. When you see a tweet that you think your followers would be interested in, you can click the “retweet” button to make that tweet appear in your followers’ home pages. They’ll know you were the one who shared it.

Hashtag – People on Twitter insert “hashtags” into their tweets to provide context, and to make them easily searchable for people looking for updates on a specific topic. They’re kind of like blog tags. A hashtag is simply a keyword preceded by the hash symbol.

@Mention – You direct public messages to other Twitter users by inserting an “@” sign immediately followed by their username. For example, “@SproutSocial Hi there.” This causes your tweet to also appear in the “@Mentions” section of the target’s Twitter account.

Twitter bird logo

Tweet! Tweet!

Once I learned the basics, I confess, I was hooked. Twitter is a great way to get lots of news and updates in one place about things you’re interested in, and it’s one more way to let people who’ve visited your interpretive site – or are interested in visiting one day – stay engaged and find out what’s new. Hundreds, of national parks, state parks, forests, historic sites, county parks and museums have jumped on the Twitter bandwagon.

On Friday there is usually a flood of Tweets from interpreters and environmental educators using the hashtag #fieldnotesfriday! The NAI National Office is behind it all. By searching for this catch phrase, you can find plenty of creative content sharing, and by adding the phrase to your own Tweet you can join in the chorus! With only 140 characters to work with, Twitter forces us to pack our interpretive subjects and themes densely into each phrase and picture – or at least pique the interest enough to lead readers to a longer blog post on the subject. Here are a few of my favorites from recent Fridays:

‏@commnatural: What’s the likelihood of seeing this animal in the city? #urbanwildlife reminder to look up! #fieldnotesfriday

@andy2pham: A #woodpecker’s tongue is curled around the back of the head between the skull and skin. #FieldNotesFriday #birds

@HappyNaturalist: Rare subspecies of human caught in the wild (Photographensis in its natural habitat) #photography #FieldNotesFriday

Do you Tweet? Please share your experiences in the “Twittersphere,” too!

Categories: Social media | 1 Comment

Hey, Teacher!

I fell in love with interpretation for many reasons, but one in particular was its “wild child” relationship to the juggernaut of influence that academia was in my life. My father, the son of two professors, was himself both a college professor and a high school teacher focused on at-risk students. My mother was an award-winning high school Spanish teacher, and the only minority faculty member in the entire school system for much of her career. They both were heavily involved in extra-curricular and community education programs, and my brother and I were brought along as active participants in almost everything they did. The joys, trials, abuses, and triumphs of the region’s schools were an integral part of all our lives.Their friends and my mentors were all teachers, and it was expected by many of these excellent role models that I’d be following in the family footsteps. It was therefore very important to me that I rebel against these assumptions. “Not going to be a teacher! No way, not me!” With the wide world before me, reaching far afield in my quest to claim independence, I ultimately became…an interpretive educator. 

It was not quite as rebellious as I had planned. If I’d been Juliet, I’d have probably just picked Paris and called it good.

My father & his students

Vintage ’90s photo of my father and some of his awesome alternative high school students

Almost twenty years later, I’ve never stopped marveling over the interactions between my home culture of (specifically public) schools and interpretive sites. These so-called formal and informal institutions have had a very long, convoluted relationship with each other, often more acrimonious than I would have ever expected. How many of our programs and sites heavily depend on school visits to reach key populations, bring in much-needed funding, and fulfill the commitments of our missions and grant objectives? And how many times have those field trips been complicated, curtailed, or even eliminated, by either logistical difficulties or lack of successful communication? 

A few years ago I attended an informative but frustrating presentation for informal educators at a Seattle museum. The research, which focused on how formal and informal forms of education interact, gave a wealth of data, but the conclusions drawn were that they just don’t work particularly well together. Sadly, few suggestions were given on how to improve that relationship. According to the research presented, the crux was that cooperation was severely restricted by school systems’ needs for a greater level of control over content, format, and timing than museums were able or willing to cede.

Disturbed by the fatalistic tone of this panel, I began interviewing the teachers I’ve known and worked with across the country, focusing on the question, “What prevents you as a teacher from successfully making use of interpretive site programs?” The vast, vast majority of the answers came back citing a lack of useful information on how they can not only plan a field trip, but also justify it to their administration. Carrying a full workload precludes sifting through multiple websites to find the crucial information that will allow them to make timely decisions (and, it can’t be over emphasized, convince their higher-ups that this disruption of scheduling and investment of funds is worthwhile) about their classes’ field trip possibilities. 

One simple, vital request kept coming up, “If they sent me a basic sheet of information that listed their programs and site information in a clear, easy format, it would make a huge difference.” I picked their brains on just what information they’d need to be able to make this work, and the result is broken down below. Keep in mind that not all of this information would apply to your site or your potential visiting schools, but my hope is that it’s a useful template to create a clear and easy way to entice teachers to your programs this coming academic year. A link to a pdf version of this list is included at the end. 

Teacher Resource Page: Interpretive Site & Educational Program Summary 

Contact Information:

  • Museum name
  • Website
  • Phone
  • Address
  • Calendar of events (link, major event info / dates)
  • School trip coordinator contact
  • Department
  • Phone
  • Email

Program Information:

Permanent Exhibit Programs:

  • Subjects covered, state/federal standards covered, ages/grades appropriate
  • Description (inc. special permission needs for controversial/upsetting material)
  • Pre/post program materials available
  • Level of participation/activity expected
  • Level of teacher/chaperone participation expected

Temporary / Seasonal Exhibit Programs

  • Subjects covered, state/federal standards covered, ages/grades appropriate
  • Description
  • Pre/post program materials available
  • Level of participation/activity
  • Level of teacher/chaperone participation

Classroom Programs

  • Subjects covered, state/federal standards covered, ages/grades appropriate
  • Description
  • Live visit by museum employee vs “museum box” materials available for teacher pick-up
  • Pre/post program materials available
  • Level of participation/activity
  • Level of teacher/chaperone participation

Online Programs

  • Subjects covered, state/federal standards covered, ages/grades appropriate
  • Description
  • Any accompanying on-site programs or physical materials

Site & Logistical Information:

  • Available days & times for field trips
  • Advance reservation time requirements
  • Costs (Including possible discounts or funding, deposits, refund policies)
  • Minimum and maximum group numbers required for programs
  • Number of groups able to be accommodated / size of museum
  • Site description and safety concerns (indoors, outdoors, stairs, presence of water bodies)
  • Site rules and regulations
  • Are backpacks and book bags allowed? Are there lockers or a safe space for them to be stored if not, or do they need to stay on the bus?
  • Bussing / Transportation options (including if funding is available)
  • Size of parking lot / can busses remain parked during trip?
  • Presence, size, and hours of dining space or cafeteria (Are visitors able to bring own food or purchase lunches on site?)
  • Chaperones required or suggested
  • Presence of security, docents, staff
  • Bilingual resources with available languages and formats (audio tour, bilingual interpreter, translated materials, signage) listed
  • Accommodations for visitors with disabilities
  • Medical resources (Appropriate storage for insulin or other medicines, epi pens, any on site medical personnel)
  • Other facilities on site (IMAX, walking trails, playground, etc)

Field Trip Info Summary

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