In 1992 the Desert Botanical Garden received a grant to develop educational elements along the trails to teach about desert plants and ecology. One of those elements was docent-staffed “investigation stations.”
The stations, to be located at selected sites along the Garden trails, would have docents available to answer visitors’ questions and engage them in learning activities with hands-on items and nearby plants related to the theme for that station. The landscape designer had suggested a few ideas for built-in demonstration tables along the trails, but somehow they just didn’t seem quite right. Since docents had been doing demonstrations on portable “kitchen carts” on the trails for several years, and had the biggest stake in any new design, they were invited to participate in a task force to help develop the new “investigation stations.”
The task force met in the summer of 1992 to discuss docents’ ideas and suggestions for improving demonstrations along the Garden trails. Docents were given the following guidelines before beginning their discussion. The demonstration stations would:
be in trailside pull-off areas that would eliminate the problem of blocking the flow of traffic on the trail.
be aesthetically pleasing when not in use for demonstrations. In other words, it should not look as if visitors were missing something if no demonstrations were taking place.
be in a shaded area for docents and visitors (after all, we are in a desert).
have storage space so items for the demonstration would not have to be carried out from the building each time (a fair distance away).
have a surface area large enough to display a variety of hands-on items.
Docents assist in the Design of Demonstration Structures During the brainstorming session, which was carefully structured to produce creative ideas, the pros and cons of the current storage and movable carts were discussed. Every idea was written down and considered. Some ideas generated further ideas, and the excitement and synergy grew. Finally, we came up with a design that seemed to satisfy most of the requirements and concerns. The result was a multi-level bench that doubles as a display area with built-in storage. The bench provides three levels for displaying items so docents can choose how to highlight certain items. The middle level is actually the top of the concealed storage area, accessible from the rear of the station. Since the storage area is at ground level, (and no one wants to get on their knees to access the items that get pushed into the back) a wire frame and light weight slide out basket system, purchased from a hardware store, was the ideal storage solution.
These plans were submitted to the landscape architect to work her magic and make the stations compatible with the rest of the Garden. The final result was multi-functional “shade islands” with stone-faced combination demonstration area and bench located under shady trees, that serve as lovely seating areas when not in use by docents. No one would ever guess, if they had not seen a demonstration there, that it was used for anything else.
Docents Help Design Demonstrations
In a desert garden where most plants are prickly or spiny, visitors are asked not to touch the plants for the well being of both the plants and the visitors. The demonstrations at the “investigation stations” give visitors opportunities for hands-on activities and sensory experiences with these amazing plants, using viewing aids and other interpretive techniques that illustrate educational messages about how desert plants live in harsh desert conditions.
To help the docents tell stories about desert plants, each investigation station focuses around a theme that has clearly articulated messages (but not a canned speech) and specific hands-on activities. The docent task force was asked for help in choosing the hands-on items that would best support the stories relating to the themes. Again, all ideas were written down for everyone to see, and some ideas generated other brand new exciting ideas. Ideas were then prioritized, and the best items were selected for each station.
These hands-on demonstrations use as many sensory experiences as possible to help visitors experience and understand the concept of the themes. For example the What is a Cactus? station has a cross-section of a cactus and opportunities to touch the spongy inside and see the woody support system. There is also a real cactus fruit, and a tiny cradle with “baby” saguaro cacti planted in it (only as big as your thumb) all available for visitors to touch and ask questions of the docent doing the demonstration. The station is surrounded by a variety of cacti for docents to help visitors compare and contrast and relate to the hands-on items.
The Prickly Pear Cactus station, on the other hand, shows the edible value of that particular cactus. Docents serve samples of candy or jelly made from the cactus fruit to taste, and samples of the vegetable called nopalitos, made from the stem. They share additional interesting information about prickly pear cacti, such as the nutritional value, recipes, and how the foods have been used by native desert dwellers. They also relate the fact that not all cacti are edible.
The education staff then asked docents to evaluate the demonstrations they were doing. If there was a general consensus that something needed to be improved, then steps were taken to make necessary changes and to get the word out to all docents. Changes are not undertaken lightly nor accepted easily by everyone, so they must be evaluated carefully. Appropriate training is always provided to ensure that the information shared with visitors is accurate and consistent.
The End is just the Beginning
The biggest advantage to having docents help design their presentations is that they are familiar with the types of questions they receive from visitors. The education staff know which concepts the museum wants to share with the visitors, so the teamwork enhances the quality of the presentations. Using volunteers to help design interpretation has been very successful at the Desert Botanical Garden. As new trails and exhibits are developed we continue to gather input from our diverse and dedicated volunteers.
Nancy Cutler is the interpretive coordinator at the Desert Botanical Garden. She began working at the Garden as a volunteer in 1989 and was hired in 1992. Ms. Cutler co-authored a previous article for The Docent Educator entitled “Desert Detective” (Vol 7, No. 1).
Cutler, Nancy. “Docents Design Investigation Stations,” The Docent Educator 9.4 (Summer 2000): 18-19.