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Where Do I Go from Here? Orienteering at the Museum

This story is really about a love affair with maps. I was always interested in maps – – roadmaps, blueprints, shopping mall maps, even fire escape diagrams. I lingered over those cartographic treasures delivered every month in the National Geographic magazine. Interest became passion the day I learned there was an entire sport devoted to reading maps.

What I learned on that day years ago was that something called “orienteering” involved navigating through the woods using a map and compass. Participants could run or walk as they chose, but they used a special type of map to find specifically placed markers and do it as quickly as possible ╤ something like a road rally, or a treasure hunt. It wasn’t long before I got a look at an “orienteering” map. I was amazed at the level of detail and color that it showed ╤ ever)’ rock, every clearing, every trail bend. Suddenly the orienteering map made me notice my immediate surroundings in a new way. I could see exactly where I was on the map. And even better, I could see exactly where I wanted to go and what I would find there. The map and the ground became one. “Geography” was suddenly an action adventure. I fell in love.

If you learned geography the way I did, the first maps you saw were of the globe, the hemisphere, the continents, the oceans, etc. Map studies never involved any area more personal than a state or county, never moved out ot the chair, and never required one to actually demonstrate map reading competence by navigating successfully.

Now what has orienteering to do with the work of docents?

Orienteering is about map literacy. It is a game that exercises our ability to interpret and apply symbols to understand our immediate environment. Orienteering is about noticing things and observing details.

When orienteering is used in a classroom or campus activity, students are presented with a map of their immediate surroundings and sent off in search of specific locations ╤ at which is a marker of some sort, or a piece of information that they need to answer questions or solve some problem. A version of this has been used in museums and nature and science centers. Students are given a map of the exhibit area with certain locations marked and a list of questions. In order to answer the questions, students must visit each of the locations shown on the map and study the exhibit information presented there. To minimize following and promote independent thinking, students are allowed to find the locations in any order they choose. This can be useful even in familiar environments because exhibits change. Students and visitors can be made aware of new displays.

An example of this is an orienteering activity that was designed several years ago by members of the Quantico (VA) Orienteering Club for the Enid A. Haupt Garden at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. This is a formal garden area in which no markers of any kind could be added to the site. However, the site was filled with information about plant material as well as historical figures and events. The activity was designed so that individuals received a detailed diagram/map of the Haupt Garden showing specific points circled in red and numbered. The numbered circles corresponded with a list of questions, such as “What is the latitude and longitude of this spot?” or “How did Andrew Jackson Downing die?” Participants could answer the questions by navigating to the specific locations shown on the map and studying the information located there.

A similar type of activity was designed tor the Chattanooga Nature Center in Tennessee for a teacher’s workshop. This nature center uses indoor and outdoor exhibition areas, including a wetlands area with a boardwalk built through it. For this activity a simple map was adapted from the fire escape diagram on display in the building. Details were added so that many features in and around the building that normally would be ignored (like some boulders in the parking area) could become navigable features on the map. One room contained an older wall-mounted pictorial display of how the geology of Lookout Mountain was formed. This display was above eye-level and several teachers commented that despite many prior visits, they had not noticed this display before the activity drew their attention to it.

One feature students enjoy about orienteering is the autonomy of the activity. With certain restrictions, the learning can be self-guided. In sensitive areas monitors (docents, staff etc.) can be posted to offer suggestions or answer questions. In an activity that was conducted recently on a middle school campus in Nashville, the teacher could not stay in visual contact with all students all the time. Parents and other teachers on the team also participated in the activity and, while doing so, kept an eye out for possible problems. The students were so excited that they focused on the activity and took no time for troublemaking.

To accommodate older students, questions can be composed in such a wav that a single answer pro\ides a clue to solving a larger puzzle — as in one instance where a chemistry teacher decided to build upon the students’ memorized basic knowledge of the periodic table of elements. Throughout the school, the educator placed small adhesive dots with symbols of various elements written on them. Students were then given chemical formulas (in one case the formula described photosynthesis) and had to use a map of the school to locate all the needed elements, and then show every location that made up their compounds. It was really quite ingenious because it suddenly made the abstract world of molecules more tangible.

These kinds of map and question navigation games can be especially powerful teaching tools when older students are afterward asked to create a simple version tor younger students. The role of the docent and teacher in this case is to help students frame the questions in an age appropriate wav for the younger ones, and to generally help clarify – details they want to include in the activity. Having finished a museum “map hike,” a group of eighth graders were given the task of creating a similar game for a fourth grade class coming in the following week. They suddenly had a new perspective on the information and exhibits they had just viewed. They became especially motivated by the idea that their efforts would be used by others. And we all know that the way to learn something is to teach it.

The only real expense is the time it takes to think about things differently and to make a reasonable map or diagram of the area. Sometimes a staff-person or volunteer has drafting talents in this area. The objective is not cartographic perfection, merely a reasonably readable picture of the site. For younger visitors (up to about age 10), it would be best to make a pictorial or landscape perspective since they have a harder time understanding aerial perspective.

In addition to teaching visitors to become better observers, orienteering teaches people to think three-dimensionally. It also forces them to develop a problem-solving strategy” and carry it out. And, when difficulties arise, it teaches them to adapt and keep trying. Because orienteering carries with it a certain “treasure hunt” excitement, it never feels quite like the usual teaching/ learning experience.

While these ideas may require some shift of perspective, they will prove extremely flexible and will reward visitors with excitement and motivation. If you are interested in implementing some of these ideas but are stumped by a unique feature of your facility or programming, I welcome the opportunity to help you solve some problems. Please feel free to contact me by email, or phone (800) 258-5995, or fax (615) 723-8788.

If, after reading this article, you go to your dictionary” and find no reference for “orienteering.” tear not. Orienteering comes from Scandinavia, and most North Americans have never heard of it. The idea that map and compass navigation is enjoyed internationally as a sport is news to almost every one. And, the idea that orienteering can be an educators best friend is equally unknown–until now.

Meg Garrett serves an orienteering consultant to educators and recreation professionals. Having orienteered competitively for 25 years, she has written a book, Orienteering and Map Games for Teachers and has worked with the Geography Education Program of the National Geographic Society. Her company. Navigation Adventures, provides corporate team budding outing. Ms. Garrett holds a B.S. in Social Sciences from Middle Tennessee State University.

Garrett, Meg. “Where Do I Go from Here? Orienteering at the Museum,” The Docent Educator 7.1 (Autumn 1997): 8-9.

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