The U.S. National Park Service made natural and cultural interpretation an important part of communication very early in the twentieth century. They lead hikes, conduct campfire programs, operate visitor centers and provide a friendly face for people less well acquainted with the resources. In more recent years the interest in interpretation has become important for the scientific community within other science-based agencies, such as the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management.
The National Association for Interpretation (NAI) is one organisation that works on the inerpretation of science and nature of the public. NAI provides training in interpretive planning, management of interpretive sites, interpretive design and writing, and development and delivery of interpretive presentations. The courses are offered throughout the United States each year and can be taken to international destinations with an appropriate invitation from an organisation or government agency. In recent years we have conducted training activities in Netherlands, Italy, UK, Panama, Canada, Korea, Japan, China and Mexico. Interpretive planning is one of the most important training areas for science outreach. Too often the decision is made from the top of an agency to fund a video, exhibit, or media piece without thoughtful planning. The result is usually a waste of the investment and no real connection with the intended audience.
One example of our work is with the Bat Conservation International (BCI) in the United States wanted to curtail the killing of Mexican free-tail bats in Central American and Mexican caves by ranchers setting fire to old auto tires doused with kerosene. The ranchers wanted to kill vampire bats which do not roost in caves, a scientific fact unknown in the ranching community. BCI developed a video to distribute through large animal veterinarians in Latin America that could be given to ranchers by someone they trust. An exhibit about this phenomenon placed in a Mexico City museum or science center would not have reached the target audience.
Another is the National Park Service in the U.S. who addressed a problem with protecting bears at Yosemite National Park through interpretive media in a Bear Aware program. Bears are attracted to food left in automobiles and they break the windows of the vehicles and climb in to retrieve the food. The result by 2002 was more than two million dollars a year in property damage for visitors and more than a dozen bears were euthanized as “problem” animals, because they would return even if hauled a great distance away and released. Videos of a bear tearing up a car were shown on TV screens above all hotel and campground registration desks. Guests were asked to sign a pledge that they would not leave food in vehicles. Signs and brochures encouraged campers to place food in bear-proof lockboxes at the campgrounds during the night to avoid damage. In just a few years more than half the property damage was eliminated and no bears were being euthanized as problem animals. Interpretive communications provided a chance to help visitors understand how the simple act of leaving food in a car can result in damage to their property and Yosemite’s bears. This thematic messaging program, “Protect your property, protect Yosemite’s bears,” was effective because it used the right media for the target audiences as a result of careful planning.
Many federal grant programs in the United States now require a specific percentage of grant funds to be spent on communication of results that encourage specific audiences to apply research findings in meaningful ways. Resource management programs often have public outreach goals as part of their mandate. Understanding the desired impact of the research or management approach can be achieved through employing a logic model approach to the development of interpretive materials.
Global climate change, the spread of HIV/AIDS, genetic engineering, and other important or controversial issues studied by scientists are funded by governments and influenced by various audiences. Thoughtful, effective communication with the public is a good investment for science-based programs.
Tim Merriman and Lisa Brochu
Featured image credit: MightyPix via Shutterstock
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