At the National Park Service (NPS) Interpretation and Education Evaluation Summit in late October, David Sobel, core faculty in the Department of Education, joined a cadre of Antiochians in helping the service reinvigorate its educational programs. Sobel and PhD in Leadership and Change faculty member, John Wergin, addressed the summit, which has taken shape over the last four years. “A bunch of us got the leadership of the Park Service interested in place-based education,” Sobel said. “Out of this emerged evaluation as a vehicle for creating a learning community within the parks. The service is talking about an interpretation “renaissance” to be launched next year. Evaluation is the instrument that’s going to help with this renaissance.”
Michael Duffin, a recent graduate of the PhD program in which Wergin teaches, and a former member of the Antioch New England Institute (ANEI), founded a firm that initiated the park service program. He and his partner, Amy Powers, an alumna of the Environmental Science master’s program, directed the steering committee for the summit. Also playing a role were ANEI co-founder Delia Clark, who directs the Center for Place-based Learning and Community Engagement at the Conservation Studies Institute, and Rita Hennessy, a student at the MacGregor School and a planner for the NPS.
According to Sobel, the Bush Administration directed most funding toward infrastructure over the previous five or six years, leading to “a deterioration in education and increasing demoralization among the ranks of the park service.” He calls the educational initiative a “reinvigoration,” augmented, only one week before the summit, by the appointment of Mary Bomar to head the NPS. She is a popular and veteran leader within the NPS and replaces Fran Mainella, who had served since 2001, left a legacy of allowing creationism to weigh in against natural science, specifically in the formation of the Grand Canyon.
Responding to the needs of educators and interpreters within the NPS, this summit’s goals were to “create a culture of evaluative thinking” throughout the staff, “characterized by continuous inquiry and learning,” said Dan Ritchie, who chairs the education committee of the NPS advisory board. He is also the chancellor of the University of Denver.
During the summit, Sobel emphasized the far-reaching effects of evaluation. He pointed out how a lack of measurement can turn away potential funding sources and investors. “Practitioners in the fields of environmental education, and the emerging field of place-based education, intuitively knew they were making a difference in the quality of the environment and attitude of people. But they didn’t have good evaluation and research to convince the [foundations] of their convictions,” he said. He also explained how evaluation helps teachers, involves communities, re-engages former teachers, and shapes programs for replication.
“This summit addressed two questions: How do you develop a culture of evaluation in a complex organization? And in what ways can evaluation help improve the quality of place-based education in the parks?” Sobel said. He has confidence that the NPS can take up these challenges, and is encouraged that many of his colleagues are leading the way. “I think it’s great Antioch University is in the forefront of this kind of program evaluation, educational research, and place-based education.”