Building Relevant Programs: From Theory to Action


On October 17, 2018 several park educators joined the For Educators, By Educators monthly webinar. This community fosters open communication and exchange of ideas. In this webinar, the discussion focused on how to build relevant education programs in national parks. The resources and ideas expressed in this resource were created from this webinar. To learn more about building relevancy, check out Relevance in Education.

Many interpreters and educators can describe their audience and park theme(s) with no problem (see below). The bigger question is, how is the theme relevant to your audience? Why should your audience care?


  • Elementary (K-5) students
  • Primarily 4th graders
  • less urban and more rural
  • K-12 students


  • Segregation
  • Survival
  • Landscape Change
  • Relationships
  • Memorialization

Try This Out

On a piece of paper brainstorm two or three of your parks intangible or universal concepts. Next, write one or two sentences describing why this is relevant to your audience. Why do young people who visit your park and attend your education program care? Why is the intangible relevant to them?

Answer the “why?” a few times.

Exploring why young people currently care is different than explaining why they should care about something. It seems much easier to compel someone to care than to identify why they may or may not currently care about something and why.

Examine a response from the webinar. The question was “What’s the relevance to your audience?”

The Columbia River Watershed is a Sagebrush Ecosystem.

She additionally states, We are training teachers to incorporate taking students outdoors and how the Next Generation Science Standards can be integrated into their classroom.

In this example, there is still an opportunity to further explore the why. Like, “why is the [sagebrush ecosystem in the Columbia River Watershed] relevant to [rural students]?”

A more in-depth answer could be:

“Many rural students in this area hunt in the sagebrush habitat. They are knowledgeable about the wildlife and terrain. By studying the watershed, we can make connections to how the health of the sagebrush ecosystem affects the Columbia River Watershed. This can lead into discussions about how the health of the ecosystem affects their ability to hunt or recreate.”

Let’s look at another response:

This landscape is the place that students call home now, but it did not always look this way. By looking at what is present on the landscape, and investigating what is missing, students can piece together the story of their community which is not only important to them, but to all Americans (i.e. Keweenaw NHP).

This response includes the audience and begins to build in relevancy. Additionally, it explores the question, “Why do young people who visit Keweenaw NHP care about landscape change and relationships?”

Use this to help you plan:

  • What’s the relevance of ___________ (intangible) to ___________________ (specific student audience)?
  • Why do ___________________ (student audience) care about ____________________ (intangible)?
  • Why is the ________________(resource) relevant to _____________________ (student audience)?”

Curriculum Standards

Examine the education standards you might use in your education programming. Regardless, if you use Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies (C3), or some other educational standard it should connect with your park theme, interest of the audience, and what students are or will learn in school. Here are some examples:

  • Content Standard: Predict the effects of changes in ecosystems caused by living organisms, including humans, such as the overpopulation of grazers or the building of highways
  • Process Standard: Planning and Carrying out Investigations and Analyzing and Interpreting Data

Current Community and Societal Issues

During the webinar, participants brainstormed current and relevant issues that could spark interest for young audiences in their park. Are there at least three issues you could develop programming around? What are they?

  • Immigration enforcement
  • Welcoming newcomers to the community
  • Me too movement
  • School bullying
  • Natural disasters
  • Poverty and access
  • Invasive species
  • Geographic isolation
  • Drugs (specifically Opioid crisis)
  • Climate change (affect to lake levels)
  • Endangered plants and endangered animals
  • Future of technology – will it make our lives better or worse?
  • Will pollution be more or less of an issue in the future?
  • Historic preservation of historic structures
  • Outdoor recreation opportunities
  • Urbanization & Development
  • Public transportation
  • Affordable housing increase visitation and impact on local community
  • Community rebuilding and support after fire
  • World tragedies

Networking and Professional Development

To build capacity with your educational audiences, what networking or professional development opportunities do you seek out to stay connected? Here are a few examples that were brainstormed during the webinar. Please share any that you have found to be successful.

  • National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) – The mission of National Council for the Social Studies is to provide leadership, service, and support for all social studies educators. The annual conference is in Chicago, November 30 – December 2, 2018.
  • National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) conferences offer the latest in science content, teaching strategy, and research to enhance and expand your professional growth. Review this list for conferences coming to your area.
  • BEETLES (Better Environmental Education, Teaching, Learning & Expertise Sharing) is devoted to creating Science and Teaching for Field Instructors. Apply for BETTLES Leadership Institute.
  • The National Association for Interpretation (NAI) is a professional organization dedicated to advancing the profession of heritage interpretation. NAI is divided into regions. Check out the Region 4 workshop, Navigating the Waters of Interpretation, April 22-26, 2019 in South Bend, Indiana.
  • SXSW EDU – The SXSW EDU® Conference & Festival fosters innovation in learning by hosting a community of optimistic, forward-thinking, purpose-driven stakeholders with a shared goal of impacting the future of teaching and learning. The ninth annual SXSW EDU will be in Austin, March 4-7, 2019.

This resource was written by Kimble Talley with the Interpretive Development Program (from webinar discussion) and edited by Brandi Stewart from Death Valley National Park.  

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