Woods Walk

WOODS WALK - WOODS TALK by Allan E. Houston

An excerpt from an invited talk at the Society of Wood and Science Technology, June 24-28, 2001, Baltimore Md.

A Day in the Woods

"Woods Walk - Woods Talk" was designed to teach teachers. From the beginning there were two major goals in mind. First, attendees receive a better understanding of the dynamic nature of biological communities, both across the landscape and across time. Second, the day provides some concept of the values that attend a forested landscape and provides the audience with a rudimentary ability to measure basic monetary values such as boardfoot volumes, along with wildlife and aesthetic components.

Armed with this information the audience leaves the woods better able to evaluate modern-day natural resource debates. At the very least, when ecological issues are portrayed in typically much-to-simple terms, they may be better prepared to discuss the questions with greater depth and a better sense of balance.

We begin the day with an indoor lecture that gives students a tour of time and an impression of how landscapes change. We visit a 19th century homestead, to renew our understanding of how the land contributes to men’s lives. From there we travel to an outdoor Museum –a Natural Area-- and discuss how a forest is born, dies and is born anew. We visit a forest that stands on the poor ground where men once grew cotton; and we see a majestic bottomland forest where priorities vie in a spectrum of values. And, then we look at young growth.

“Woods Walk - Woods Talk” was born out of a vision that the target group would multiply the educational input; and from this foundation the program had proven durable and has evolved into something better.

A Homemade Recipe for Field Presentations - Twenty Years of Ingredients
To be effective, an educational effort must be delivered to a receptive audience in an attractive manner. It is a question of targeting a specific group; packaging information so that it isn’t too big or small and then evaluating the resources available to effectively convey the information.

“Targeting the group” - Many programs are, by nature, broad based. Their appeal reaches across an array of age groups and disciplines. Other programs however, would do well to target a specific group, honing an ability to fit the needs of that group. For example, a program developed to educate college students would not be fitting for third grade school children. Also, programs that do well in the long run mature over time. A core of expertise builds within the material; and from that base the best programs achieve the flexibility to include new ideas and issues as they come along.

For a nontrained-educator in the public realm, like myself, zeroing in on a target group helps reduce the frustration inherent in trying to build a program. There are enough bureaucratic limbs obstructing information shot toward any target, without trying to be all things to all people. Once the target group is defined, it is vital that the message be built with that audience in mind. One must not only consider what is desirous for them to hear, but also what they must first understand before they can comprehend the message --and how much can they carry in the time frame allowed?

“Packaging information” - In general, information is conveyed in three broad mediums: 
- a classical educational experience, most likely thought of as a classroom setting; 
- a hands-on experience, where students build something, or perhaps a field trip with the student in a close-up, but observational role; 
- fun, where the students participate in an entertaining or exciting experience that is educational and perhaps team building, or even ancillary to the main process, but allows students to relax and better engage in the total program.

This trioka may be developed very fully over a week-long workshop. It can even be developed in a half-day lecture with slides to simulate a field trip and thoughtfully injected humor to keep sleepy heads from thumping desktops. Depending on the audience, one leg of this triangle will need to be longer than another. With younger students, obviously a premium should be placed on the “fun” and “experience” portions, as opposed to the droning of a classroom.

There is always a temptation to tell the audience more than they need, or care to hear–to make the subject more complex than it needs to be. Many issues raised in one-day natural resource workshops are the subject of 4-year degrees. Any horse rode into the ground usually takes a saddle-sore, and downright angry, audience along for the ride.
Packing information is an exercise in organization. It must flow logically and attractively. It is better to overly inform than to utterly confuse. But, information must not bog down in tedium. Teaching resources can be used like stepping stones to the goal of understanding. However, it is vital that both “package” and methods be identified a priori so as to be delivered in a cogent, thematic and logical manner.

The educator must be prepared and know the material. He must like his audience and by extension respect contrary points of view as being held by respectable folk. She must identify a theme and critically assess the means to achieve its full composition.

“Evaluating resources” - Resources come in many forms, including the dynamism and expertise of individual speakers, the availability of take-home products, proximity of land resources, monetary support and administrative blessing, and the long term fidelity of audience pool. Resources must be evaluated for effectiveness rather than incorporated for convenience. To wit, a long bus ride to a good field site may not be worth the view, unless the audience is highly technical and badly needs to see some hard-to-find, specialized gadgetry. A fine speaker can be sabotaged by poor presentation mediums or staging. On the other hand a mediocre speaker can be riveting with outstanding props and a love of what she is about.

A Vision tied to Reality

All three of these concepts were vital to the success of the “Woods Walk -Woods Talk” program, although all three are more a virtue of hindsight and in some cases simple good luck. Yet, there was a sense that teachingteachers was worth the effort, that this was a program with a “multiplier effect.” This formed a “vision” that was a tremendous incentive. There is no fire that doesn’t need a few banking coals over the long haul.

The “Woods Walk - Woods Talk” target was large and there were novel ways to gain access to them, including in-service days. And the audience provided a stimulating synapse. These are smart people. They wanted to know things and sometimes they initiated contact and set up a day in the woods.

The information package was evaluated very critically. As new issues came to light they were incorporated, but the foundational biological precepts remained. In essence, it is to this day a set of very orderly steps that the students accomplish during the course of the program. It brings the students onto a common page and moves them into a common realization that allows them to evaluate and quantify natural resource questions in a new light. Building from foundational ideas, the day moves from one teaching tool to the next. An array of resources allow illustration of specific concepts through an escalating alphabet of understanding. It was good luck to have so many pertinent natural resource settings, so quickly available, at Ames Plantation.