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The Challenges of Creating and Running a Large, Outdoor Educational Program

As educator at the Early American Museum in east central Illinois, most of my time is spent conducting school field trips through our facility. Every program I present has two basic challenges: educational content and logistics. The educational needs of the teacher include those of her students, school, district, and state. These must mesh with our museum’s mission “to collect, preserve, and interpret the history of east central Illinois, specifically Champaign County, for the education and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

Logistical concerns become routine and, therefore, minimal. Of course, any day or group has the potential of dumping the unexpected at your feet, throwing routine out the window. Over time and through experience, most docents and staff grow comfortable with their daily challenges. They acquire sufficient tools or solutions to present good quality programs most days and become adept at solving on-the-spot problems.

A specific program often presents its own unique set of challenges, and finding its equally unique set of solutions is simultaneously frustrating and exciting. This situation arose several years ago when my supervisor and I wanted to create a program incorporating our district’s three education entities.

Champaign County Forest Preserve District is comprised of three distinct educational sectors: environmental, horticultural, and historical. We wanted to collaborate to produce an in-depth education program for 3rd through 5th graders that addressed Illinois learning standards in social sciences, science, language arts, and physical education. The result is a program we call “Prairie Adventures,” which has been running for over four years now, and that keeps the same strong skeleton while continually pursuing solutions for remaining challenges.

As it was conceived, the program would be held at our district’s Lake of the Woods Park. Our “outdoor classroom” was an acre in a small botanical garden that bordered the Early American Museum, a greenhouse, an office building, a small prairie patch, a one-room schoolhouse, and further gardens.

Our overall objective was to provide a quality learning experience where a student will come away with a better appreciation of the interdependency of the animals, plants, and people of east-central Illinois prairie in the mid-to-late 1800’s.

During the planning stage, both the educational and logistical components of this project were addressed. Each educator needed freedom to develop her program as an individual unit, while at the same time fitting it cohesively with the other two. The physical and natural characteristics of our site needed to blend with both the visitor’s and educational needs of the program.

Formatting the educational content began with brainstorming. What specific information did each educator feel was imperative to include? What common threads were apparent among these? How much content overlap is valuable versus redundant? While designing our individual programs, continual communication among all three educators resulted in a truly integrated whole.

Environmental education focuses on relationships within the prairie food chain. Students role-play various animals, forming “human” food webs. They engage in an insect scavenger hunt in a small prairie patch.

A relatively long walk through the park’s larger prairie stand gives hands-on opportunities for plant identification in the horticultural portion. Children learn about plant lore and adaptation, climate and soil conditions, and experience the “Prairie Chicken Stomp!”

There’s corn a-plenty in the historical education segment. Students compete in a corn shock-building contest, shell corn, and make corn husk dolls. A selection of farming implements and kitchen artifacts form an indoor “What’s It?” activity.

Although presented individually, these three components of prairie life, i.e. – animals, plants, and people are intricately entwined. How could we most effectively help students understand this “piece of the whole pie” concept? We agreed that some visual and physical reinforcement was required.

Each student’s name badge has a triangular cyclic flow icon with spaces for three stickers. Each educator affixes an appropriate sticker to the cycle at the end of her presentation. This icon/sticker concept was our solution to two major challenges. 1) It enables all educators to easily summarize and review what the class already learned and flow into the next segment. The students have a visual connection to each sector’s educational content. The icon reinforces the interdependency of the animals, plants, and people of the prairie. 2) Logistics-wise, it greatly aids those of us running the program. Any educator can instantly teU who a child’s teacher is, and where he or she belongs.

The stickers worked well, but we wanted more. Maybe something the students did at school to help prepare them. Voila! In year two, “Prairie Puzzle” was born!

We designed a poster to include the animals, plants, and human activities collectively discussed and transformed it into a large (30″ X 40″) 12-piece puzzle. One pre-visit requirement for each class is to color their puzzle piece, research the related question on the flip side, and bring it along. Sometime during the Prairie Adventures experience an educator helps them fit their piece into the whole. A ribbon connects the teacher’s name to the class’s piece. The completed puzzle dominates the museum’s bulletin board.

This program requires a fair amount of teacher/student preparation time. The pre-visit packet has several pages of instructions relating to their visit day. Cross-curricular activities provide potential enhancement for both teacher and student. General and specific information is updated annually.

General prep activities include: completing provided name tags according to included directions; conducting puzzle piece-related activities; and gaining familiarity with the logistics of the day, i.e. – arrival time, lunch/restroom schedule, rainy day needs, etc.

Each educator provides information specific to her program. Included are items such as vocabulary, seat work activities, recipes, general background information, post-visit activities, etc. A few minutes into the day it becomes obvious who’s prepared!

Logistics provide at least as big a challenge to this program as does educational content. How do we physically organize this five-hour day, balancing time to rotate through three educators, gulp down lunch, and cope with limited bathroom breaks? With most of the program outside, how do we handle noise interference or a rainy day? What happens when a bus is 30 minutes late?

What ultimately makes this work is precision timing. Everyone sticks to the schedule, NO exceptions. It is truly a well-oiled piece of clockwork.

Classes are asked to arrive approximately 10 minutes early for a prompt 9:00 start, with departure back to school at 1:45. Each class rotates through the three mini-programs according to the day’s prescribed schedule, spending 1-1/2 hours with each educator. There are two rotations prior to lunch and one afterwards. The only scheduled bathroom break is during lunch. If a group is late or must depart early, their first or last rotation is adjusted appropriately.

Ensuring reasonable eating time and bathroom use for 120 people in 1/2 hour took some doing. Each teacher brings handi-wipes, as requested in pre-visit material, for hand washing. Restroom use rotates on 10-minute intervals. We added port-a-pots in year 2 and 3, but concluded they were not worth the expense. Educators share lunch duty and assist with general needs. In case of rain, lunch is in the museum.

Each class has four picnic tables that serve as their “camp.” Balloons mark their spot, color-coded to match their name badges. Upon arrival, lunch coolers are moved to camp, where classes may leave personal belongings. We are not responsible for lost articles, and the only missing items to date have been “squirreled” away!

One concern we all had was the effect that a day-long, “close quarters” would have on everyone. Surprisingly, the combined visual and auditory stimuli provided by nature, a nearby highway, park/public passersby, and the other two groups have virtually no negative influence. It’s amazing how happily-involved children and adults tune out potential intrusions.

We offer this program four consecutive days in early fall, accommodating three classes each day. The biggest challenge of this whole event is how to most fairly select the participants. We have tried several strategies, but a happy solution remains elusive.

We used a straight lottery draw in year 1 and 2, accommodating approximately 2/3 of entrants. Was this fair? It left us feeling unsettled. Is a teacher automatically denied because her school requires a bus be filled and we only draw one name at a time? How about the home schooled group with only 15 children? Do we want one repeat teacher to provide continued evaluation for us? Should we aim to serve as wide an audience as possible, thereby limiting repeat participants?

In year 3, we adjusted the lottery draw somewhat. We put all the “special needs” requests in one draw and those who previously attended in another. Any teacher who had attended both preceding years was first on the waiting list. More or less fair?

We increased our audience by combining two small classes to form one “group,” and by splitting one class into two small units, both to join another mid-sized class. This enabled us to reach about 45 more students. At week’s end, we unanimously decided this was necessary to try, but definitely would not be repeated. In the Fall of 2002, we drew school names instead of teacher names.

The program’s popularity has had the unfortunate result of allowing fewer of the total entrants to participate. Every year we discuss the feasibility of running Prairie Adventures for a second week. At this time, however, our energy-level and the time needed for other educational programs doesn’t allow for this.

Following selection of our participants, all responding teachers are notified by phone of the results of the drawing. Pre-visit packets are either hand-delivered or mailed to those who are coming that afternoon. The waiting list is readied in case of cancellations, which presents the additional problem of forwarding the selected teacher’s packet to the new user.

Evaluation was particularly important the first year, so we used two out-of-house observers. One was in the business field; the other was a long-time district volunteer and retired science teacher. We were fortunate to have both their services free-of-charge. Since the educators couldn’t witness the entire event in operation, their evaluations were immensely helpful. They also supplied us with impressive written documentation to pass on to our board of directors.

We self-evaluate at the close of each day. How was your day? Any problems? New needs for tomorrow? Friday’s evaluation is more comprehensive, and we usually go as far as to put suggestions and reminders for next year on paper.

Our 2002 rendition of Prairie Adventures saw two new challenges. In late Spring, the horticultural educator position became vacant and would not be filled prior to the start of the program. One solution, deleting the plant section, was not even considered. The environmental sector would take it on with a minimal extra effort, and by mid-summer that was well under control. AH seemed ready until the head environmental educator had her baby four weeks early. Nevertheless, co-workers banded together and became excellent problem solvers. Participants had no idea of the scrambling going on just prior to their arrival.

Even though we are thoroughly exhausted by the program, the thought of another year of Prairie Adventures remains attractive. It has been the best all-around educational program any of us have had the pleasure to be involved in.

Its rewards have always outweighed its challenges.

Sandy Osborne is an educator at the Early American Museum in Mahomet, IL. She contributed an article to a previous issue o/’The Docent Educator. That article, entitled “Weaving Artifacts into Stories,” appears in the Summer 2000 issue (Vol 9, No. 2), which focused on the theme of “Presentations and Demonstrations.

Osborne, Sandy. “The Challenges of Creating and Running a Large, Outdoor Educational Program,” The Docent Educator 12.4 (Summer 2003): 10-13.

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