What is the difference between environmental education and interpretation? Here is the textbook definition. Environmental education “strives to increase public awareness and knowledge of the environment and to provide the skills necessary to make informed environmental decisions.” Interpretation “is a communication process that reveals meanings and relationships about the natural, cultural, historical, and recreational resources” and it builds emphasis on the mission of the organization or agency that creates and carries out the programs.
I thought a lot about these two informal educational methods this past week when I traveled to Cape Perpetua Scenic Area of the Siuslaw National Forest. In my time there I learned more about the educational and outreach programs that are presented by the talented Cape Perpetua staff. The other Environment for the Americas intern and I accompanied the lead field ranger for three days of hands-on science learning activities and outdoor exploration. Our first program took place at Knowles Creek a few miles east of Florence, where a group of fourth graders had a scientific question they needed to answer with the data they collected: is the water quality at Knowles Creek good for fish? The fourth grade class participated in different stations, including macroinvertebrates, fish, and water quality. Using special scientific test kits, the students tested the creek’s pH and dissolved oxygen levels and took air and water temperature readings. The best part was when they put their incredible observation skills to use to determine the turbidity and velocity of the water. They collected multiple measurements to determine the averages once back in the classroom. After a few sessions of observing the lead ranger, we jumped right in and led the water quality station. The next day we were all on our own, teaching and leading the kids on an adventure to determine the health of the creek.
Giving kids the opportunity to explore the outdoors does not require test kits or a pen and pencil, however. Sometimes it just involves a little creativity and curiosity to learn and ask questions. This is exactly what another fourth grade class used when they traveled to Cape Perpetua. With their creativity and curiosity they discovered the wonders of the tide pools, learning why animals have the teeth they have and determining whether the bunny followed the bobcat or the bobcat hid in the rabbit hole based on the tracks they left behind. While at the tide pools I didn’t exactly feel like a field ranger (as I was introduced to the class), because I was filled with excitement about having the opportunity to explore this amazing ecosystem for the first time and along with such an amazing group of kids.
At the tide pools I realized that environmental education and interpretation go hand in hand to create a mindful and relatable connection to our natural environment. While the kids were exploring the tide pools I saw their curiosity grow and their desire to see more intensify. They wanted to jump over the pools and walk across the giant log to see what was on the other side. But then you tell them that if we did that we might risk hurting the marine life. They listened and understood, and it made sense to them why we are supposed to be respectful and careful when exploring the tide pools. Sometimes leaving it alone and observing from afar is the best way to explore and protect nature. My week was filled with many more stories like these. Overall, it was made clear to me that the Siuslaw National Forest staff is making a positive impact with the programs they make possible and with the knowledge they share with the many curious and energetic kids.