Imagine walking into a desert garden along a red brick path bordered with natural rock. Among the multi-colored wild flowers and pale colored shrubs, you see the amazing shapes of succulent plants and a wide variety of spiny and hairy looking cactus. Watch a Cactus Wren, who makes an appearance as you stand there looking at its football-shaped nest. You are in the Desert Botanical Garden, in Phoenix, Arizona, an outdoor museum with special opportunities for interactive teaching through Investigation Stations.
As you continue your walk, you see a small group of people gathered in a pull-out area along the path. They are listening to and asking questions of a Garden docent. The docent has several items to show visitors on a stone display area, to help them learn a little about the Sonoran Desert and the Desert Botanical Garden. He or she tells you that you will encounter docents at other Investigation Stations like this one along the trails, each station with a different theme about plant life in the desert.
At the next station, the docent might show visitors a dried cross-section of a saguaro cactus, sharing why the accordion-like pleating is important for stem succulents in order for the stem to expand and store water when it rains. Storing water allows the plant to live during long stretches when no water is available. The docent may also show a small “cradle” planter containing baby saguaro seedlings that are about one inch tall and nearly four years old! Wow, do those plants grow slowly!
Thus, docents share the story of plant and animal life in our desert. Each Investigation Station is situated near the plants whose story is being told, so visitors have a real view of the plant and the opportunity to make first hand observational discoveries about it and any natural animal life that might chance to drop by. In natural settings, the wildlife is not dependable, so viewing their activities depends on chance, and can be a special discovery when it happens.
The Desert Botanical Garden has four theme trails — all with plants from the deserts and each focusing on a different aspect of desert life. Docent interpretation on the trails uses informal learning techniques to share with visitors the answers to questions they may already have and take them a step further in their knowledge about desert plants and animals, as well as about the people who live in desert environments. The philosophy at the Desert Botanical Garden is that the Garden itself is a dynamic living classroom, and docents use this living classroom to help visitors of all ages develop and answer questions about how a desert environment works, and why it is special.
To connect with visitors of all ages and all stages of knowledge, our techniques include encouraging the use of as many senses as possible. To help visitors understand how the prickly pear cactus is used as food, we serve a little taste of candy or jelly made from the prickly pear fruit or a cooked piece of the stem or pad commonly used as a vegetable. The strong smell of the dampened leaves of the creosote bush helps visitors remember the story about the resin and how it helps prevent evaporation from the small leaves of the plant. Visitors are encouraged to listen to the sounds of the birds and to compare one bird sound with another.
Docent tours and Investigation Stations include hands-on items to give visitors a visual and tactile sense of what the docent is discussing. Looking at a bird nest closely and touching the sticks or grass that it is made from reinforces the understanding of how birds use plant materials for their homes. Comparing one type of nest to another also helps visitors remember, and visitors are encouraged to notice various things about the plants the docent is talking about. We also have docents who walk the trails with hands-on items in order to answer questions that visitors may develop during their visit.
Due to desert weather conditions — extreme heat in the months of May through September — the “regular” docent season is October through April. In the hot summer months, however, the desert is a very lively place, and we still want to share fun and fascinating information with visitors. We do this on early morning tours or evening “Discovery Flashlight Tours” that make the heat of the desert easier to tolerate.
As you exit the Desert Botanical Garden a spectacular view of red rock buttes is before you and you might notice, with all the new things you have learned about the desert, that it is a complex, beautiful and yet, very peaceful place to visit.
Nancy Cutler is the Interpretive Coordinator at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona. She began her museum career in 1989 as a volunteer docent at the Garden. In 1992, she became the Interpretive Coordinator and now oversees the docent program and conducts interpretive training. She is a past Chair of the Museum Educators Council of Arizona.
Cutler, Nancy. “Investigation Stations Bring the Desert Closer,” The Docent Educator 8.2 (Winter 1998-99): 7.