Using Tablets to Increase Science Literacy among National Park Visitors

Merson, M., Allen, L. C., Cox, P. L., & Hristov, N. I. (2016). Roving with a Digital Visual Library Increased Learning Opportunities at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Journal Of Interpretation Research, 21.

Enhancing the science literacy of national-park visitors may strengthen their emotional and intellectual connections to nature and increase stewardship. Researchers have studied the use of handheld digital devices to improve science learning in schools and museums, but more research is needed on their use in parks. In addition, the U.S. National Park Service has been encouraging its staff to inform visitors about park-based research through interactive experiences with handheld digital devices.

This study was conducted as part of a project called Interpreters and Scientists Working on Our Parks (iSWOOP) at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. The 13 interpreters in this study ranged in age from 20 to 40 years old, all had college degrees, and there were slightly more men than women. All participants had previous experience working in parks and expressed belief in the importance of communicating science to visitors.

As part of the iSWOOP project, the interpreters received professional development and two iPads each. The tablets contained a research-based virtual library with visualizations of the Brazilian free-tailed bats' life and environment at Carlsbad Caverns. At the beginning of the project, the interpreters attended a professional development program with seminars and field visits. Throughout the program, they learned about current research on Brazilian bats, methods for interactive science communication, and effective use of the virtual library's components, which include video, animations, pictures, and figures.

During the field implementation phase (July 2014– March 2015), interpreters stood at strategic locations inside the caverns or walked counter to visitor traffic, initiating discussions with groups and individuals. Nine interpreters used the tablets to engage visitors in informal science conversations and help address visitors' questions about the bats or caverns. The remaining four interpreters did not use the tablets but, instead, followed their traditional, personal methods (such as using a flashlight and props) to engage visitors.

Using an open-ended survey, researchers collected data on the interpreters' experiences. Interpreters who used the tablets answered survey questions about the perceived benefits of using the virtual library, strategies they used to initiate and sustain discussions with visitors, visitor responses to tablet use; and any difficulties they encountered. They asked the interpreters who did not use the tablets to respond to the question, “What were the barriers for you?”

The researchers qualitatively analyzed the survey responses to identify the main characteristics of interpreters' experiences. The researchers used several other data sources to complete their analysis, including the interpreters' feedback on the professional development, and informal communications (e.g., emails and conference calls) between the park team and researchers throughout the iSWOOP project.

Overall, the nine interpreters who used the tablets reported that the tablets and virtual library were beneficial in reaching interpretive goals. The tablets and visualizations extended their interactive time with park visitors; and the study's authors argued that these longer conversations provided time for strengthening visitors' emotional and intellectual connections to the bats. Interpreters used the virtual library to reveal parts of the caverns that were otherwise inaccessible, such as the bat cave; and they reported that children reacted with amazement. Another perceived value of the tablets was the dynamic nature of the featured media; for example, the interpreters showed visitors an animated video of the bats' flying through the cave as seen from a bat's perspective. Finally, interpreters used the library to show how researchers used advanced technologies, such as thermal cameras and laser scanners, to create special visualizations. Interpreters also reported that most visitors seemed to enjoy their interactions. Visitors expressed gratitude for interpreters' efforts to expand the experience and explain the scientific background and expressed interest in the media and technologies used.

The interpreters also described the strategies they used to enhance the visitors' experiences. They selected strategic locations to initiate conversations with visitors, such as at the sign pointing the way to the bat cave and on benches where visitors rested. Some interpreters also personalized their methods for approaching and inviting visitors to talk, but most interpreters waited for visitors to approach them first and then used aspects of the cave or questions to initiate discussion. After showing impressive visuals, the interpreters sustained their conversations by adapting their comments and tablet displays to visitors' specific interests.

Four interpreters who participated in the iSWOOP project declined to use the tablets, and three of them reported their concerns. They worried that the attractive visualizations would divert attention from the actual caverns. They preferred to keep the visitor experience authentic, focus on the concrete features of the bats' habitat, and leave space for visitors to imagine the bats' lives inside the caverns. Other challenges were logistical, such as keeping the tablet battery charged and juggling the tablets alongside flashlights, props, and other interpretive tools.

The Bottom Line

<p>Environmental educators and program leaders may wish to explore the use of digital devices to enhance visitors' experiences. At Carlsbad Caverns National Park, some interpreters used tablets to showcase a virtual library and engage visitors in conversations. These interpreters reported that the use of handheld digital devices helped them reach their interpretive goals and that visitors seemed to react positively to their use. However, some of the park's interpreters declined to use the tablets for a variety of reasons, including a desire to focus visitors on an “authentic” (not virtual) experience and an inability to overcome logistical challenges. Effective implementation of digital devices requires addressing logistical obstacles, as well as philosophical concerns about using the tools in teaching and interpretation.</p>