Discussion topic

Who’s in charge here?

After attending the NAI National Conference in November, I came back to my Nature Center and dove headfirst into the hardcore planning for our annual Fairy House Festival (February 10th, 2018, you know you want to come!). As I lay awake the other night, trying to turn off the “Festival Brain” and actually rest, it occurred to me…

Planning and running a special event is like caring for a 2 year old. No, really, it is! Think about it for a minute. Things are going to go wrong, you just accept that fact and move along with your life. And when they don’t, you freeze and look around suspiciously. You are constantly braced for the barrage of questions: Why are we doing this? Are we there yet? HOW much did you spend?!? You provide answers again and again and again: Because it’s good for us. It’ll help us grow. Because I said so! Your pour time and energy and a little pieces of your soul into “raising” this beast…and then you see how wonderfully it turns out. You watch the happy faces of the participants and they see all your hard work. Every day working with a special event is a learning opportunity, I promise. Just make it a mantra: I am growing as an interpreter and this is good for me. Ommmmm.

A few things I’ve learned along the way (and am still learning):

  • Delegate! Whether your event is for 30 people or 3500, delegate those responsibilities! You’ll lose less hair!
  • The budget never works. Plan on that.
  • Don’t let your wings get stuck in a tree (doubly important if you’re a fairy). Have a Plan B! And a Plan C. And a Plan D, E, F, G…what does that spell? Backup!!!
  • Doesn’t matter what time of year it is, the weather will be wacky. Especially if you live in North Carolina. Plan ahead and have weather contingencies. I’ve worked festivals in rain and snow, wind and tornadoes. Be prepared!
  • You are not going to please 100% of the people 100% of the time. Nobody’s perfect and that’s okay!
  • Glitter never truly gets cleaned out of anything. Consider this before creating signage or activities. Also consider if your signage is legible and your activities accessible. And really, really avoid reaching for the glitter.
  • Stop. Breathe. Have a little fun yourself at the event. Walk around and enjoy it! If you’re not having fun, then what’s the point of doing it?

Now, I’m still learning and I love hearing from other event coordinators. Have you run a special event lately? What about sometime in the past? What have you learned???


Image result for funny event planner

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Summer Reflection

August is here and summer is slooooowly drawing to close. Some of you may be done with summer programming and others may be still working through a few more weeks of camp (schools starts soon, right? RIGHT?!?). As we wind down what is, for most sites, an incredibly busy season, take time to rest, recharge, and reflect. This might mean going on a staff field trip to celebrate surviving the summer or hiding under your desk for a well-deserved nap (for my managers who may be reading, I promise I have almost never done this). Be sure to take some time to think back on camps and/or summer programs. This is your one chance to remember and write it all down before diving into the Fall season! Consider….

  • Which programs/camps worked?
  • Which did not?
  • Why didn’t they work the way I wanted them to? Should I change my parameters (age, space, time) or my focus (the topic rocks but do I need to address it differently)?
  • Why did they work the way I wanted them to? How can I duplicate this radical success next year?
  • Did I remember to lock up all the canoes?
  • How did my totally awesome co-workers support me this summer? How can I plan to support them next year?
  • After I planned for everything, what issues came up that I didn’t plan for?
  • What was the best part of the summer for me? How can I try to replicate this feeling next summer?

Every day(camp) offers a new learning opportunity, even for the most jaded interpretation professional. Take what you have learned, use your experiences, and create something even better for next year!

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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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You are an influencer!

By Pepe Chavez
Every time I teach a Certified Interpretive Guide Course is exciting to see excited faces about interpretation and better understand how to connect people with the resource in hope that they will care.

Last month I attended a session by my friend Brian Forist, he went on to explain that sometimes we should let people create their own themes along the interpretive program and what it looks like in his experience.

Interpreters are influencers! We try to create connections to influence people’s opinion and ultimately change behaviors. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this by nodding out head like a genie out of a bottle?

This morning listening to a presenter about influencers he identified the “social influencers”. People that are not on a leadership position in any organizational chart but people look up to them. These are very powerful influencers since they are natural leaders and people will look for their approval or advise to make decisions.

If you want to become a better interpreter think about becoming and influencer yourself or interpret to the influencers so they can carry your message to places or people that you can’t.

1.- Identify the result you want and measure it. “Get better at some point” is not a measure. When you have measurable objectives you will be able to know what you are looking for and also when you get there.

2.- Find the behaviors you want to change. There are key moments when you can influence people to make a long-lasting impact. Take advantage of those moments and make them count.

There is a lot more to learn about this topic than the length of this post but keep this in mind. We are always influencing people around us, let’s start a conversation by replying to this post or on the Sunny Southeast Facebook page. How are you engaging people to drive change?

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Your profession is a 2-way street

905593_10156238454060564_6815222464763559734_oAs a your professional I was always looking at professional organizations to improve my skills, knowledge, networking opportunities, and at times, their perks. Time has gone by and I have learned that being a professional also means to be part of a community, with peers that often times learn from each other along the journey that we call our career.

I still look at professional organizations for personal and professional benefit but I also look for opportunities to “give back”, to share what I have learned along the way and give other the same opportunity to be involved.

NAI has been the perfect conduit for me to do so and I would encourage you to do the same thing. There are plenty of opportunities to contribute to our profession and here are a few that I can think of:

  • Donations: It could be some money as a direct donation, a contribution through our scholarship auctions, or other means. We can all donate a buck or two and it could mean that another young professional can attend a regional or national conference.
  • 1498908_10154852110865564_6834254784530283653_oVolunteer: Sometimes we don’t have the cash to make a donation but we can always find some time to help. You can volunteer at the next Regional or National Conference, be Perky’s Guard, Assist the planning committee to the next conference (great way to attend), or run for an elected position.
  • Supporting vendors: Organization support NAI and what we do. Some of them are event sponsors, commercial members or just donate a portion of their proceeds. Like Amazon Smile, select the National Association for Interpretation and support NAI by shopping.
  • Planned giving: At one point we will stop to be residents of this planet, you can plan to donate what you leave behind to your professional organization. This is a bit uncomfortable topic sometimes because we never want to think about death but nobody will escape it.

I am sure you will find the best way to support your professional organization just as much as we as community have supported each other.

Have a great end of the summer and I can’t wait to see you in Corpus Christi, Kentucky, or anytime in between.


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Setting Course

By Helena Uber-Wamble

More than 25 years ago, I started my job in interpretation as a part-time park naturalist. This wasn’t just a job, it was a way of life. There were many topics, subjects and skills that I knew about and practiced not just for my job, but for my weekend adventures. One of those very important skills was map reading and orienteering.

Road MapIn today’s day and age, who needs a map with Siri telling us exactly where to go, or Google maps giving us a turn by turn directions to our next destination? GPS is in the phones we carry, the Fitbit we wear and the camping gear we choose to carry when we are out on extended hikes. We are on technical overload! What happens then when the batteries die and need recharged and there is nowhere in a 2 mile walking distance to plug-in? What happens when gear gets wet and totally shuts down? Then what?

There is nothing as sweet as looking at a map, orienting the compass and finding our way to the next campsite, trailhead or nearest road. Reading the curvy lines on a topo map also help us find the easiest route, this may not always be the most direct, but it can be the least strenuous. The skill of reading a map, especially a topo map is key to truly enjoying an outdoor adventure. Reading a map in general, a road atlas, zoo map or museum map is key to planning your day and making the best use of your time at destinations…. Who wants to go to Disney without map skills, only to find out that the show that starts in 10 minutes is all the way across the complex and you will never make it on time. Rather by reading the map and schedules, one can plan to be on the correct side of the Magic Kingdom just a few steps away from the show you want to see without the rush and stress of trying to get there.

When my nephew was just 4, I took him on his second camping trip (ok, his first camping trip out of the backyard) to a nearby campground. I highlighted the route on the map and I had him follow our progress by tracing his finger along the map and orienting in with each turn we took. He was able to keep up with the journey as we went along and it taught him some very important skills. He learned what the rest areas looked like along the way, and how close we were getting.

By the time he was 7, David was picking out parks for us to go hiking in. We would look at the trail maps together and see how long the hikes were and what interesting features were out there for us to see. We went many places and he visited Alabama for a few days one summer. You better believe when it was time to drive him back home to Ohio we looked over the map and picked the best route. I asked him to read signs and keep me on track. It was a good way to pass some of the time on the long drive north. I say long, because by then David was around 14 years old and he picked a few destination spots to stop at along the way including Ruby Falls. It turned out to be a great trip even with the extra stops.

This year we gave my other nephew a compass for his eighth birthday. We told him if he started using his compass with his maps we would take him on a camping adventure. We will be setting up small compass activities for him to help him hone his skills. We will also teach him to read those curvy lines on the map while helping him pick the best route to hike. David has entered the adult world, and drives his own car, but he is never without a map. Jake is just learning and thinks it is a cool “game”. I hope he too will learn to master the skill of map and compass reading.

As part of a search and rescue team, each member must have his map and compass skills mastered before they can participate in searching for those that are lost. It is a vital skill, one that prevents searchers from becoming part of the problem. It is fun, and it doesn’t take tons of money or time to learn how to use these tools. Learn what a bearing is, mark your parking spot on a map before you head out on the trail, take a back bearing, and learn your pace. Start small and set your compass on the map to find the elephants at the zoo and then plan your best route. Then try larger areas and parks by walking a course while heading to a distant hill or odd tree. Setting your course can make for a hassle-free day and create many memories too.

This generation needs to know these skills before they become lost to cyber-space altogether. With all areas in our life, we should have a destination and plan accordingly. Happy trails and safe travels!

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“LEED”ing the way….

by Brian Thill

Each day we have the opportunity at our centers to lead the way. It may come in the form of mentoring others, our educational programing, taking care of our staff and volunteers, or our facilities.

While attending the NAI National Conference today we saw an example of a facility that’s “LEEDing” the way (credit to Drew Heyward on that word zinger). The Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach is a LEED Platinum certified center that was on the Interpreters Road Show that showcased how they’re leading the way in efficiency and resilience.

They look at their building as an experiment, and vetted nearly every material or process that went into creating and operating it. Here are a few highlights of a center that uses what the sun, wind, water, and reusables give them to operate.

LEED photo

Brock Environmental Center, Virginia Beach

  • Car free site/No parking lot….when you access the site it requires a small hike to get to it.
  • Recycled materials throughout the building:
    • Recycled glass for donor wall.
    • Local high school bleachers recycled and used for the trim (complete with words carved in the wood from high schoolers and re-stained).
    • Recycled gym floors, sanded down, stained and reused as flooring.
    • Recycled fence posts from the Virginia countryside used as flooring.
  • Rainwater is captured and used as drinking water.
  • Compostable toilets, solid waste turning into compost and urine made into fertilizer sold to the public.
  • 2 wind turbines producing about 30% of their energy.
  • 100+ solar panels producing 70% of their energy.
  • “Vampire” settings that come on at night to reduce energy consumption from electronics that might be on.
  • Natural ventilation.
  • Natural lighting.
  • Elevated on pylons well above sea level to prevent damage from future flooding.
  • Landscaping the prevents runoff and promotes filtration.

Should you be looking into building with efficiency, balance, and resilience in mind this is one site to check out.
Check out their energy use dashboard at cbf.org/brockdashboard and the cbf.org to learn more about this facility.
How will you lead the way?

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Animals in Education: Why Do We Pet Turtles But Not Possums?

Do you work with live animals at your site? Does your site have rules about how you use these animals in your interpretive programs that sometimes make sense and sometimes don’t?

I have worked for 15+ years at a nature center in western Kentucky that has over 40 captive wild animals on exhibit. These animals have been either injured or orphaned and imprinted, and are considered “permanently non-releasable.”

Some of the biggest questions you have to deal with when you have live animals at your site are how you want the public to be able to interact with them. Can they pet them? And if so, which ones? Can they feed them? Do they have names?

At my nature center, we let visitors touch many of our snakes and turtles. But visitors can not touch our other wildlife, such as our larger birds and mammals. We also tell visitors that we don’t name the animals because they’re not pets. The lesson is supposed to be that wild animals are not pets and therefore don’t have “pet names.” These animals are wild and so should not be treated like pets.

When I was younger and just getting started in this field, I pretty much parroted these lines. But the older I get, the more I seem to question the logic. For example, why is it okay to pet a turtle but not a deer? Is the turtle somehow less “wild”? Is the deer more? Would naming our coyote really make someone more likely to try to keep one as a pet? Maybe, I just don’t know.

Obviously, some animals should not be touched because there is a safety issue – no one wants to see a visitor get hurt. But what about the value of giving people the experience of an up-close connection with an animal? The main reason that we let people touch snakes is the hope that an up-close experience will lead to less fear and more appreciation of these often-misunderstood creatures. Why does this logic seem to stop with reptiles? Would it be terrible to let visitors touch an opossum, another often-disliked animal?

Currently, we have a deer at our nature center that is very people-friendly. She comes right up to people and sniffs at their hands. Even though we have signs saying “Please don’t pet the deer,” it is way too tempting, and people pet her all the time when our staff aren’t watching. So far no one has been bitten, but many have been awestruck. Is this bad? I don’t know.

More and more, it seems like people in general are having less experiences with wildlife in their regular lives. But there is a hunger for it out there. People are watching animal YouTube videos like crazy, watching animal shows on TV, following bird nest web cams. But real experiences with real animals? Those seem to be few and far between.

In interpretation, we often say that we need to get people to feel a connection with something if we want to motivate them to protect it. If this is true, maybe getting people to feel a connection with animals is a goal we should think more about. It sounds so simple, but many of our rules often work contrary to this.

I’m not sure this is right, it’s just a question I’ve been pondering lately. What is the harm in letting a child pet a deer if it is a safe situation? Or an opossum? Do we lose something if we let kids call a coyote “Campbell”? Or do we create something? Which is the bigger issue, getting people to think of wild animals as wild, or getting people to feel a connection with them in the first place?

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Does Every Program Need a Theme?

I am about to pose a question that might verge on blasphemy within the professional NAI community. Are you ready? Here it comes: Is it possible that not every program needs a theme?


Did I really just write that in a forum seen by my peers? Will I be banished as a pariah interpreter? Will I lose my professional certification? Have I gone crazy?

Well, yes, many who know me will vouch that I might be a touch crazy. But hopefully I won’t be banished or professionally rebuffed. Let me explain what I mean …

First of all, I strongly believe in the value and effectiveness of thematic interpretation for the majority of situations and program types. I’ve had years of training in this method, have spent years training other interpreters to employ it, and firmly believe that most programs should have a theme. Like you, I believe this is the best way to get your message across to your audience.

But … yes, here’s the but! Is it possible that some programs don’t need to have a “message” per se? Can the purpose of your program be to create an experience – instead of conveying a main idea, create a special moment? Not a lesson but an impression? Is a program with this as its main goal ever appropriate?

Here’s what this kind of program might look like: Maybe instead of structuring your program as supporting points that build to your main idea, you structure this program as steps to prepare your audience to be receptive to a moment of direct experience with nature. Begin with an activity to break the ice and loosen them up. Then get them warmed up to the habit of focusing their senses and paying attention. Then set up the direct encounter with something special in nature. Finally, give them a chance to reflect or share so their mind can process this moment into a memory. This progression might be familiar to you if you’ve studied the “flow learning” method advocated by Joseph Cornell.

In the end, they haven’t really learned a “lesson,” but they go home with a special memory that they might carry with them forever. They’ll tell their teacher, their grandparents, and their cousins about how they got to hold a crayfish, or see a hiding deer fawn, or hear the call of a bald eagle. Can this sometimes be enough?

For example, consider a bird walk for families with young children. You could design a bird walk in the traditional way with a theme. Perhaps the message would be “Birds need safe places to raise their young.” Along the walk, you might visit several areas where birds are nesting and cover supporting ideas such as that some birds build their nests on tree limbs while some build them inside cavities, etc. By the end, your participants would hopefully take away your message.

Or, you could design the program to build up to the experience of a child holding a baby bird in their hands. Maybe you start with some kind of fun activity where the kids try to build a nest like a bird. Then maybe you go for a walk and warm up their senses by having them pretend they are parent birds looking for bugs to feed their babies. Then you arrive at your purple martin colony, where you watch the parents flying around, peek inside an actual nest with babies, and finally let the kids hold a baby in their hand! At this point, you just allow the kids to experience a magical moment with the baby bird, and don’t try to “teach” too much. The important thing going on here is the connection, not the information. The feeling, not the facts. The memory that is getting created. On the walk back, to help them reflect on the experience, maybe you ask them each to tell you two words that describe the baby bird.

Is a program like this acceptable as an interpretive program? Is it good? Does it fall short? Or does it have a place in our programming?

Personally, I think these kinds of programs are valuable. Especially in today’s world, where not only kids but people of all ages are having fewer and fewer direct experiences with nature on their own, I think that nature centers can try to facilitate these experiences. I think that sometimes setting up a simple but powerful experience, without trying to teach a lesson or convey a lot of facts and information, can go a long way towards getting people to feel that basic connection with nature and animals that is necessary as a starting point for any kind of care or concern for the natural world.

I don’t know. I could be lazy. I could be a heretic. I could be a bad interpreter. But I do know that when a little kid holds a baby bird, their eyes widen, their mouth drops open, and sometimes they tremble with excitement. Is that sometimes enough?

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A juicy peach

"Gaffney Peachoid" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gaffney_Peachoid.jpg#/media/File:Gaffney_Peachoid.jpg

“Gaffney Peachoid” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

Have you watched “House of Cards” on Netflix? Remember the episode during the first season when Congressman Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, has to return to his home district to settle a controversy over a giant peach towering over the town of Gaffney, SC?

Maybe, like me, you’ve driven by this Southern landmark many times on your travels through the Sunny Southeast, or maybe you even live nearby, but you and I (and the producers of House of Cards) probably have this in common: we see , in this roadside peach, an object “ripe” for interpreting (pardon the pun).

Personally, my thoughts don’t go first to the peach growers’ industry (and the startling fact that the Palmetto State grows twice as many peaches as the Peach State), or a Roald Dahl story, or even the Chicago Bridge & Iron Company who built the peach in the 80s but “isn’t in Chicago, doesn’t build bridges and doesn’t use iron.” Though these are all intriguing, my own connection to the Peachoid lies underground.

In my day job, when I’m not webmaster and blog coordinator for the Region or volunteering at the Cradle of Forestry in America Historic Site (the place that got me interested in interpretation), I’m Assistant Director of a small nonprofit called Clean Water for North Carolina. I wear many hats, including a few that involve outreach and education on that most unsexy of topics: groundwater.

Groundwater model

Modeling groundwater contamination in a classroom.

Many resources have an instant “wow” factor, something to provoke a sense of curiosity and grab the audience’s attention right away: surface water woos them with waterfalls, streams, and lakes; forests have trees and wildlife, mushrooms and hidden trails; rocks and minerals can be handled and observed. People naturally gravitate toward that which they can see, hear, touch, smell. Those of us who interpret groundwater belong in the same category as oceanographers and astronomers – we have to find ways to shine light on the distant, the unseen, the dark depths. Groundwater educators are often relegated to classroom tricks: pricy mail-order model kits, demonstrations with sponges and jugs of water; the ever-present blue and red food coloring.

And that’s what makes the Peachoid so “juicy” to me. Like other water towers (though with much more sweet southern flair), it is one of few visible signs of the vast, underappreciated, precious water resources beneath our feet. The columns of water reaching skyward remind us of the plentiful water underground but also of our utter dependence on it. Once tainted, even our human ingenuity may not be enough to clean it up again.

So next time you’re driving by the Peachoid with others, strike up a conversation. Yours might be about agriculture or iron; mine would go something like this. “Hey, look! A giant peach! What could it be doing in the middle of upstate South Carolina? Have you ever seen something like this?” Before you know it, we’ll be deep in conversation about the aquifers that millions of southerners rely on to supply water to their taps.

What landmarks near you are jumping-off points for interpretation?

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