Live interpretive programs bring national park sites — from ancient ruins to cherished landscapes — alive for thousands of visitors. “At each of these locations, the park service wants to make the experience meaningful, giving the visitor something to think about, even change how he or she thinks or feels after leaving the park,” said Marc Stern, associate professor of the human dimensions of natural resources.

Recognizing the importance of interpretive programs, the National Park Service Education Council sought to understand how such programs influence positive outcomes for visitors and how to improve them. At the education council’s request, Stern and his colleague, Robert Powell of Clemson University, assembled a team that attended 376 live interpretive programs and collected surveys from audience members to solicit their satisfaction with the programs and their perceptions of the impacts they had on their knowledge, attitudes, behaviors, and overall park experience.

“When the interpreter’s goal was to impart knowledge, visitors experienced less positive outcomes,” said Stern. “But when an interpreter was going for an attitude — such as appreciation of the park or a desire to learn more — outcomes were more positive. The belief that, ‘if I teach a visitor about a butterfly’s life cycle, then they’ll suddenly become environmentally conscious and recycle or buy a hybrid car’ is certainly discredited by this study. Rather, content and delivery that encourage audiences to feel something and reflect on their own lives drive deeper changes in individuals.”

Stern and Powell are currently working with the National Park Service to translate the research findings into training programs and system-wide monitoring protocols for interpretive programs. The study has implications for the broader field of interpretation research as well. “This is the first systematic, comparative study to isolate what leads to better outcomes for live interpretive programs,” Stern said. The research will appear later this year in a special issue of the Journal of Interpretation Research devoted entirely to this study.