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NPS Fundamentals Essentials: Interpretation and Education

Overview

Whether you are a new employee or interested in employment with the National Park Service, understanding how the organization functions is vital to your success. Are all parks the same?  How is the work divided?  How are the sites managed?  What do the different divisions do?

Known as “Essentials,” these topics provide insight into how the National Park Service manages the entire system of parks and programs to accomplish its mission.  Reading through each topic gives an overview at the most basic level with opportunities to link to more in-depth, specific information.

Introduction

While all NPS employees may address visitor needs in a variety of ways, employees in the professions of Interpretation and Education (I&E) represent the face and voice of the National Park Service (NPS) – its parks and special programs to the public, connecting people to parks.

Interpretation and Education (I&E)

An interpreter (also called an interpretive ranger) is a professional communicator who facilitates audience understanding and appreciation of park resources and our nation’s stories and treasures.  Interpreters engage visitors in ways that attempt to bring meaning to each person, enriching their experience.  In the NPS, interpretation is formally defined as a “catalyst in creating opportunities for audience members to make their own intellectual and emotional connections to the meanings of park resources.”

Formal education activities in the NPS generally involve a structured plan for learning opportunities coordinated with an educational partner such as a school or field institute. Education specialists or education rangers often collaborate with local schools districts; teachers; and other youth, family, or adult organizations to use parks as unique learning labs and outdoor classrooms. The best, most memorable, and most effective education programs are those that are also interpretive: they employ many of the same communication techniques that seek to reveal meanings and relevance for specific age groups through a range of programs, activities, and media. The NPS works directly with many school groups – at parks, virtually, and through provisions of educational resources. In order to facilitate these opportunities, I&E professionals need:

  • Current, in-depth knowledge of history, natural history, science, culture, current events, and recreation, applied to resources and stories at their site
  • Current, in-depth knowledge of audience needs and characteristics
  • Ability to apply appropriate communication techniques and learning strategies in a wide variety of programs, visitor services, and media

The professions of interpretation and education continue to evolve to meet the needs and expectations of modern audiences and the growing role of national parks in our society. As a result, I&E services have begun to focus more on experiential learning and active engagement, allowing diverse audiences to discover meanings for themselves and to become participants in creating their own interpretive and educational experiences.

To help meet the expectations of both on-site and virtual audiences and enhance interaction, engagement, and relevance, I&E facilitates civic dialogue, citizen science, service learning, resource immersion, social media, and other finds of visitor experiences.

I&E and the National Park Service Mission

Interpretation and Education provide dynamic, vibrant, and essential support in fulfilling the NPS mission. The stewardship of park resources is highly dependent upon an engaged and supportive public.

By facilitating meaningful and enriching park experiences, I&E services provide a mission-critical role — helping visitors discover why they care about park resources so that they will want to help care for those resources.

I&E and Society

Interpretation and Education play a key role in the development of essential civic awareness skills for society, along with fostering vital health, enjoyment, and well-being.

The civic function of the NPS is not just in preserving park resources and stories, but in revealing their modern relevance. Interpretation and Education services provide access to these aspects of relevance by:

  • Increasing scientific, historical, and cultural literacy
  • Building civic participation skills — how to listen, have a conversation, be respectful, synthesize, collaborate, and solve problems
  • Increasing awareness of untold stories, multiple perspectives, new points of view, and society’s evolving challenges
  • Promoting lifelong learning
  • Increasing mental, spiritual and physical health, and well-being

I&E and the History of the NPS

Naturalist John Muir first coined the term “interpretation” in nature from his 1871 notebook in Yosemite: “I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and the wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.” Since then, interpretation has been a long-standing tool to reach visitors of our national parks.

I&E Today

Interpretation and education are essential park operations and are keys to meeting the needs of on-site and virtual visitors, who number in the hundreds of millions. Statistics are reported annually in the Servicewide Interpretive Report.

I&E are responsible for virtually everything that pertains to information, orientation, and education in the NPS. Both Personal Services and Media services work together to provide the broadest and most accessible information to the public.

A park ranger stands with a group of students in front of a white schoolhouse
An interpretation ranger leads a guided walk

Personal Services

Face-to-face encounters with the public take many forms and include:

  • Visitor center desk (orientation, information, park film, permits, radio/phones, book sales, etc.
  • Illustrated programs (outdoor, indoor programs with audio/visual (A/V) equip.)
  • Guided walks and talks (ranger and volunteer-led programs)
  • Living history (presented in 1st/3rd person)
  • Demonstrations (skills or programs using interpretive props)
  • Education programs (delivered to school and youth groups both on- and off-site)
  • Special events (celebrations, holidays, anniversaries, etc. on- and off-site)
  • Roving (informal visitor contacts along trails, campgrounds and overlooks)
  • Facilitated dialogues
  • Citizen science, service learning, and other activities where visitors participate to accomplish park goals
  • Youth engagement programs

Media Services

Many types of media help on-site and virtual visitors engage with national parks, including:

  • Free publications (park newspapers, foreign language translations, site bulletins, checklists, guidebooks, etc.)
  • Waysides (exterior interpretive information/orientation panels)
  • Signage (temporary or permanent signs for buildings, trails, roads, etc.)
  • Visitor center/museum exhibits (indoor and outdoor displays using interpretive panels, museum objects or reproductions, interactive exhibits, A/V aids, etc.)
  • Web-based media (park websites, mobile apps, social media, etc.)
  • Junior ranger program (activity booklet for kids, badges, etc.)
  • Videos/films (park orientation films, A/V components for websites and exhibits, etc.)
  • Educational media (teacher’s guides, distance learning applications, etc.)

In many parks, the I&E division of the park may also be tasked with:

  • Public affairs (live interviews, TV/radio, press releases, reviewing text, etc.)
  • Curatorial services (maintain museum collections, accessions, loans)
  • Resources management (I&RM) or visitor protection
  • Partnerships and community outreach
  • Volunteer-in-Parks (VIP) program which bring in thousands of service hours to support all operations in the NPS.

I&E Showcase

Explore the following examples to discover more about the direction of I&E services across the NPS.

Service Learning and Youth Engagement

“Of the Student, By the Student, For the Student”
When local middle school students visited Manassas, interpreters helped them work with videographers to develop stories that mattered to their everyday lives. The interpreters shared stories of immigrant soldiers from Ireland, stories that resonated with the students, many of whom were born in other countries, and have found a new home in America. Through this personal and immersive experience, interpreters helped these students find a powerfully relevant connection to an otherwise distant historical event. The Story of Immigrant Soldiers at Manassas is a  6-minute video written and narrated by the students.

Social Media

New Voices and Virtual Visitors through Facebook
Interpretation doesn’t just happen within a park. Sometimes, interpreters find themselves interacting with visitors hundreds and thousands of miles away. Interpreters at the Harry S Truman National Historic Site have been interacting with fans of Harry from across the nation through their innovative use of Facebook. By using pop culture references, witty presentation, choice historical tidbits, and a healthy dose of respect for their historic resource, these interpreters have developed an engaged group of visitors who, even though they’ve never set foot in the park, are now stewards of this special place.

Living History and Facilitated Dialogue

The “Peculiar Institution” Returns to the Old Courthouse in St. Louis
Sometimes interpreters are not the ones sharing stories. Sometimes it is far more powerful to help others share their tales. In 2011, interpreters at Jefferson National Expansion Memorial partnered with local community members to help bring slavery back to life as an event of remembrance and learning. On the steps of the Old Courthouse, where slave auctions occurred 150 years before, local African-American actors cried out in agony as they recreated families torn apart and lives shattered. The event wasn’t simply a play. Afterwards, the audience and actors alike gathered in the courthouse and discussed why the story mattered. Park interpreters facilitated this dialogue, opening discussion on not just the past but the issues we still face today.

Interpretive Program

This example of a traditional interpretive program is designed to help audiences care about Yosemite’s bears. This program has at least two purposes – to enhance and enrich the visitor’s park experience by providing opportunities for connection to relevant meanings about park bears, and to thereby engender care and concern to encourage visitor compliance with park regulations concerning bears.

Education Program

Parks As Classrooms and Virtual Field Trips
Park educators at Great Smoky Mountains National Park engage thousands of students each year through on-site and virtual resource immersion activities. In the Parks As Classroom (PAC) program, students are immersed in hands-on inventory and monitoring projects to examine biological diversity and historic preservation. The data they collect leads to discovering the impacts of air pollution, climate change, and exotic species. The Electronic Field Trip uses lessons, games, and activities to engage students who may never get the opportunity to visit the park in person.

I&E and Park Management

Working in collaboration with other career fields and park partners, Interpretation and Education professionals support and enable the mutual goals of park management.

I&E play a key role on park management teams as the bridge to communicate important visitor safety and resource protection needs to the public. I&E help gain compliance with park regulations by facilitating audience understanding and appreciation. I&E services also raise awareness and concern for critical issues such as climate change or invasive species, and provide a forum for dialogue and understanding multiple perspectives.

I&E and You

Interpretation and Education services are dependent on YOU, in your daily work, as a co-facilitator of meaningful, memorable visitor experiences.

All NPS employees play a role in connecting people to parks and parks to people. Whatever your job, you are a key player in providing a safe, appropriate and enjoyable experience for on-site and virtual visitors. It takes the entire NPS staff, along with our dedicated volunteers and partners, working together to orchestrate effective I&E. In addition, wherever you go and whatever you do, you always have a personal opportunity to be an ambassador for your park and the NPS.

I&E Issues and Challenges

Some of the key challenges facing Interpretation and Education professionals deal with staying abreast of a rapidly changing world and include:

  • Meeting the changing needs and expectations of 21st century audiences to ensure the relevancy of national parks
  • Changing the way we work and communicate so that we are serving all audiences, rather than just “the choir”
  • Making the best use of new and evolving communication and media technologies
  • Sharing authority and leveraging the contributions and creativity of others – partners, volunteers, communities, visitors, and other stakeholders

Additional Resources

Interpretation and Education Career Fields and the Interpretive Development Program

National Park Service Education Portal

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  1. I believe this is helpful to employees who are both new and a veteran to the Department of Interpretation in any park. Not only does it provide a foundation to what the goal of interpretation is, but it also gives helpful tools and examples for interpretive practices in different settings and mediums.

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  2. This is very informative and I can not wait to dig a little deeper into these topics. Being in the NPS for 30 years, it is always refreshing to continue the learning process.

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