Natural resources professor helps National Park Service improve interpretive programs
A national park offers more than beautiful scenery, a chance to blacken a marshmallow over a campfire, or an educational field trip to a historic landmark. Live interpretive programs bring park sites alive for thousands of visitors.
But many of the programs could be better — resulting in changed visitor attitudes and behavior — according to researchers from Virginia Tech and Clemson University.
The National Park Service preserves cultural and natural places, from historic sites in cities and remote ruins from ancient cultures to preserved patches of wilderness and recovered forests, wetlands, and grasslands.
“At each of these locations, the park service wants to make the experience meaningful, giving the visitor something to think about, even change how he or she thinks or feels after leaving the park,” said Marc Stern, associate professor of the human dimensions of natural resources in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.
Interpretive programs vie for the same resources that provide maintenance and law enforcement in the parks.
“It is easy for maintenance to make budget requests, but not interpretation,” Stern said, who teaches in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. “If a road needs fixing, the management team can point to a crack or a pothole.”
“It is recognized that interpretive programs are important, but not how to measure their effectiveness or improve them,” he continued. “So the National Park Service Education Council decided it needed to understand how these programs influence positive outcomes for visitors and how to ensure their continual improvement.”
In order to develop standards for assessment and monitoring of interpretive programs, the education council went to Stern and his colleague, Robert Powell, associate professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management at Clemson University.
Stern and Powell assembled a team that attended 376 live interpretive programs over three months and collected 3,603 surveys from audience members above the age of 15 to solicit their satisfaction with the program and their perceptions of the impacts it had on their knowledge, attitudes, behaviors, and overall park experience.
They visited 24 National Park Service sites ranging from natural areas like Badlands National Park in South Dakota and Yosemite National Park in California to cultural sites such as Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
The research team tracked over 50 characteristics of each program they observed to identify which practices were most commonly associated with more positive visitor outcomes.
“The first striking finding was that there were no programs that all attendees considered to be explicitly bad,” said Stern. “Visitor satisfaction scores were almost all above the midpoint on our satisfaction scale.”
However, the team was able to identify practices that separate what might be considered “good” programs from “great” programs. “People who attend programs may be predisposed to have a positive attitude,” Powell said. “They are on vacation and go because they are already interested.”
The researchers measured visitors’ satisfaction, influences on their experience and appreciation for park resources, and whether visitors felt the program would impact their subsequent behaviors. Because of the wide variety of programs observed, outcome measures were kept broad and nonspecific within the study.
The team identified 15 elements that were statistically related to more positive visitor outcomes across the sampled programs. “Many of these elements reinforce assumed best practices within the field, such as telling a holistic story and being responsive to the audience,” Stern noted. “However, we also uncovered less generally accepted findings.”
“When the interpreter’s goal was to impart knowledge, visitors experienced less positive outcomes,” said Stern. “But when an interpreter was going for an attitude — such as appreciation of the park or a desire to learn more — outcomes were more positive.” Moreover, interpreters did not achieve changes in behavioral intentions in visitors unless that was their specific goal.
“The belief that, ‘if I teach a visitor about a butterfly’s life cycle, they’ll suddenly become environmentally conscious and recycle or buy a hybrid car’ is certainly discredited by this study,” said Stern. “Rather, content and delivery that encourage audiences to feel something and reflect on their own lives drive deeper changes in individuals.”
“In a parallel study in environmental education, we found that when students went through a shared experience and explicitly deliberated among themselves, they were more likely to experience change than if they read a book or heard a lecture,” said Stern.
“For example, an interpreter might ask visitors to close their eyes and imagine what the area looked like, even smelled like, 150 years ago,” he continued. “She could lead visitors through the story of what it would have been like to live through the changes the landscape had experienced up to the present and finally invite them to experience their restored surroundings and imagine what they would be like if not for the park. This type of exercise provokes emotion and reflection.”
“We were hoping we would find program characteristics, such as pace, that would be easy to fix, but it was the personal characteristics of the interpreter, such as charisma and caring, that were actually the best predictors of a program’s success,” said Stern. “Of course, storytelling and other interpretive practices are important, but the individual interpreter’s apparent confidence and authentic emotion and charisma were more important than other factors we measured.”
“A good parallel would be to think about classroom teachers who teach the same content. They don’t provide the same experience to the students,” said Stern. “Whether the teacher cares matters. We all know which teachers we want our kids to have in second grade.”
The team listed 15 attributes that can be relayed when training interpreters, but, they emphasize, “Each of these practices employed in isolation does not guarantee a high-quality program.” The team recommended “maintaining the freedom for interpreters to be creative and innovative in their presentations.”
“Interpretation is a complex phenomenon that requires competence in a range of techniques,” said Powell.
The team’s report is available from the U.S. National Park Service. In addition to Stern and Powell, the authors include Emily Martin of Clemson, S.C., a graduate student in Clemson University’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management, and Kevin McLean of Newport News, Va., a graduate student studying forestry in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment. The research was supported by the National Park Conservation Association’s Center for Park Management.
Stern and Powell are currently working with the National Park Service to translate the research findings into training programs and system-wide monitoring protocols for interpretive programs. “The park service doesn’t just want to have good programs; they want to have excellent programs,” Stern said. “The practices we uncovered may make the difference between the two.”
Stern also explained that the study has implications for the broader field of interpretation research as well. “This is the first systematic comparative study to isolate what leads to better outcomes for live interpretive programs. Research in the field typically looks at single programs. This study looks at what makes programs achieve what they achieve, empirically confirming some of the field’s common assumptions and adding a few new wrinkles.”
The research will appear later this year in a special issue of the Journal of Interpretation Research devoted entirely to this study.