Monthly Archives: April 2017

Smile and Wave

I’m sure many of you think you’ve heard it all. There’s nothing left that could possibly surprise you. When you work with the public as closely as interpreters do, it’s easy to become jaded pretty quickly. With so many interactions every day, you feel like you’ve seen and done it all. I myself thought that absolutely nothing could throw me off balance anymore. I work with kids and animals-what could possibly ruffle my feathers? But now and again, I get a pointed reminder that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the “interesting” visitor iceberg and that the interpretive life is full of surprises.


Sometimes, it’s a simple misunderstanding or a lack of knowledge. It can be hard to remember that not everyone has the same level of familiarity with the natural world as I do. One of my all-time favorites comes from another educator’s visitor experience. A gentleman had approached her and was questioning her as to the best way to remove a squirrel from his attic. He wanted to get it out “before it [laid] its eggs!” (A point of clarification for the non-biologists out there: squirrels, being mammals, do not lay eggs) Other times, it may be as simple as a child who has too much Animal Planet viewing time and not enough real world experience…

Educator: “What animal could drill through bark and threaten a tree?”

Student: “A hummingbird!”

Educator: “Ah, not quite! This animal does have wings and a long beak, but also pecks holes in the wood?”

Student: “A SQUIRREL!”


Many of our best moments here at the nature center come from our younger audience. Kids are always full of surprises and never seem to follow the script you have laid out in your head. For instance, when an educator here was covering geology in the form of pudding cups, cookies, and assorted treats, she made a classic mistake and asked a 5 year old an open ended question.

Educator: “These are gummy worms that are okay to eat. Should we eat real, live worms if we find them?”

5 yr old: “well YEAH!”

Never give a moose a muffin and never ask a 5 year old about eating worms. It won’t end well.


Although it can be more than a little exasperating at times, we need to remember to view these interactions with a smile and a sense of humor. For many visitors, questions that seem insane to us are quite genuine on their part. They want to share their thoughts and questions with us and learn from our experiences. So keep a smile on your face, remind yourself what a great Facebook post this’ll make, and enjoy the surprise!



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Don’t Forget YOU!

It’s Spring and things are ramping up at our centers! School groups are making their yearly pilgrimages to our sites, northerners and locals on spring break are popping in, and just around the corner is summer and everything it brings. YOU Blog

With our focus on those audiences in this busy time it can be easy to forget about YOU.  Just like our audiences have motivations for coming to our sites don’t forget to take advantage of those same motivations yourself to reap the benefits provided by our centers.  We often preach getting outside, connecting with water or playing to our audiences as a major health benefit, now its your turn! Each interpretive center has experiences that can be recharging for you during the spring/summer hustle, whether a midday walk on your trail, lunch next to the water, or quietly zoning out in front of an exhibit take advantage of this “me time” that our centers provide. Wishing YOU a great spring/summer!


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Process Revealed

You are a teacher. It doesn’t matter if you are a tour guide, a sign maker, a brochure author, a docent trainer, or a visitor greeter; you teach others about stuff. Important stuff. And sometimes stuff can get pretty complicated—for example, how would you tell a five year old about how a volcano works? A powerpoint lecture is not a good option. So instead, the vinegar and baking soda volcano, that time-honored demonstration that has been exhibited in countless science fairs through millennia– was born. Kids don’t get excited because you are explaining the difference between phreatomagmatic or phreatic eruptions (two of the types of eruptions), they are more interested in seeing stuff blow up (who isn’t?). And in the process of seeing stuff blow up—they learn something. Which is our main goal as a teacher.

So I’ve always been fascinated by demonstration areas in our parks and centers. In my observation, these are visited more often than the static exhibits. And I’m surprised that nature centers and parks don’t have more demonstration areas than they do—as it offers an opportunity for process revealed. In other words, showing how stuff works.

rain garden swale (gallo)

Take how water works in our landscape as an example. Most of the time, rain water falls at a time we are inside, and the water magically disappears into a complicated network of drain inlets, pipes, culverts, ditches, and ultimately—rivers and oceans. How can we reveal the process of water cycling even when water isn’t present? One way is through a series of interpretive water collection or conveyance demonstrations.


Non-point source water pollution is a major concern by the U.S. EPA, which lists it as a priority problem that we all contribute towards. As a result, a number of best management practices, or water treatment techniques, have been developed to store and cleanse rainwater. Some pretty cool ones at that. These include green roofs, green walls, artistic rain gutters, rain barrels, cisterns, runnels, crafted drain grates, dry swales, pools, ponds…..the lists are exhaustive. It reveals the process of water falling on our properties and what happens to it, and they create very teachable moments for visitors. Maybe ones that they can incorporate into their own backyards.

rain garden swale 2 (gallo)

So as you walk around your facility, what are those potential teachable moments? Is that front parking lot conveying your mission statement? Can you set the tone for the experiences that lie ahead for the visitor? Can you describe the process behind what they see? Even the most mundane of functional site items (fences, recycling, walls, roofs, lighting) have the potential to be a teaching moment. How many can you see?

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Investing in the Next Generation of Interpreters

When you were getting started in the field of interpretation, did you have a special person who inspired you and helped you gain confidence in yourself? Someone who took the extra time to show you the ropes, share advice, and give you encouragement? For me, it was my first professional supervisor, Wendy Rhoads, who served as Program Director at the Weis Ecology Center in New Jersey, where I did a 1-year internship.

Almost 20 years later, I am still working in the field of interpretation, and without a doubt Wendy is the reason. These days, I find myself doing a lot of introspection about whether I am paying Wendy’s gift to me forward. Am I taking the time and energy to invest in the next generation of younger interpreters? Am I passing down the gifts that Wendy so generously gave to me? If you have worked in this field for several years, maybe you have pondered similar questions.

It can be easy to go about our daily routines and focus on the tasks at hand — what needs to get done for this program, which areas of our site need to get cleaned next, etc. — and overlook the thing that actually needs the most care from us:  our interns, seasonal staff, and others who are embarking on their career journey. Are we going to be the person who invests in them, gets to know them, gives them attention, and inspires them with the confidence that they can be a great interpreter? Or are we going to just make sure they’ve completed the day’s checklist of tasks? These folks are daring to take a plunge into a new world, and the way we help shape their experience could literally determine their future path.

From the moment I started working at the Weis Ecology Center, Wendy took me under her wing and supported me. Even though I know she was very busy, she took time to train me, show me the ropes, and make me feel welcome and comfortable. She took me out on the trails and ran through mock programs with me, gave me ideas for different activities to do with the kids, talked with me about concepts such as child development and inquiry-based learning, taught me natural history basics such as tree identification – generally investing her time and energy into helping me become good at my job. She even invited me to go hiking with her after work and showed me a variety of the nearby trails. I remember feeling astounded and grateful that she felt it was worth her time to do all of this for me.

Not only did she invest in me to help develop my skills, but she also invested in me by helping to develop my confidence. When I would be preparing for a program, she would often say things like, “I know you’re going to do a good job” or “The kids are really going to enjoy being with you.” I should mention that I came to this job with virtually no background in either teaching or biology – so I was constantly perplexed at why she had such confidence I would do a good job. She dared to invest in me without really knowing if her investment would pay off.

But it did. It had a huge impact on me. I had never experienced an adult treat me this way – go out of their way to give me personal guidance, tell me that they had confidence in me – this was just such a new experience. And you know what? I DID start to do a good job. I found that I LOVED this job. Her support triggered a self-sustaining positive cycle for me. Now, it’s not that she never had suggestions for improvement or constructive criticism. It’s that the overriding feeling she gave me was that she was “on my team” and working to help me succeed. Wendy showed me how meaningful it is to nurture, mentor, and build confidence in the younger people who come to work with you.

So today, I ask myself, am I doing for others what Wendy did for me? Am I taking the extra time to help them do a good job and build self-confidence? Am I making them feel that someone is “on their team” and wanting them to succeed? Am I doing everything I can so that our interns and entry-level staff have a first job experience that makes them want to continue along the path of interpretation? Are you?


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