Imagine the warm afternoon sun on your back and a dry prairie wind blowing across your face as you stand high atop a ledge overlooking a 30-metre drop off a historic buffalo jump. You are a park interpreter and this is your office: more than 1,000 acres of bald prairie where Aboriginal tribes used to hunt bison for their hide and meat. The bison herds are gone, but thousands of tourists return every summer to catch a glimpse of what the prairies used to look like before the Europeans came west. It is your job as a park interpreter to help paint that picture and re-create some of the area's cultural and natural history.
As a park interpreter, you interact with hundreds of people each day who have come to learn about the park's unique history. Right now, more than 40 visitors are listening intently as you explain some of the elaborate strategies Blackfoot tribes used to hunt bison. You creatively narrate the story of how tribe members would work together to herd dozens of animals at a time over the jump. The bison would fall to their death on the rocks below, and their carcasses would be harvested to provide food, clothing, and shelter for the tribes' families. You use the story of the bison jump to educate your audience about the Aboriginal tribes and how they learned to use natural features such as the buffalo jump for survival. You stress how economical tribes were when it came to harvesting resources from the environment, citing the fact that every part of the bison was used for some purpose and nothing was wasted.
At the end of your story, you invite these visitors to attend an engaging amphitheatre presentation where you and other park interpreters will bring native species to life using songs, characters, puppets and more. You hope that through all the park activities, you can impart to these visitors a greater understanding and respect for their environment.
Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a park interpreter:
Park interpreters work in a variety of locations, including:
In the field:
In the office:
There are a number of places park interpreters can find employment. They include:
If you are a high school student considering a career as a park interpreter, you should have strong marks or an interest in:
In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as a park interpreter is a technical diploma. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as a park interpreter, the following programs are most applicable:
Park interpreters can have a range of backgrounds in addition to those listed above, including post-secondary education in drama or music. Certification is not mandatory in order to work as a park interpreter.
The combination of biology and teaching is a perfect fit for me, however, it was the natural environment that first held my interest from the age of twelve. I lived across the street from a forest when I was young and my adventures there influenced my career direction. In high school, a very knowledgeable teacher fostered my interest in the natural world and I decided to pursue an environmental career. My first university degree was a B.Sc. in Environmental Biology. I worked as a Wildlife Biologist, Interpreter, Interpretive Writer and Interpretive Planner for the first ten years of my career.
I then returned to university for a Bachelor of Education to study how people learn and apply that to my work in interpretation and exhibit design. At university I was advised to take summer jobs that gave me valuable experience towards my career. It was good advice and the experience increased my skills, making me more marketable after graduation. Park interpreters are hired by national and provincial park systems and historic sites as well as city managed environmental, nature and interpretive centers and non-government organizations like tourist attractions, zoos and other conservation groups. You can also work for privately owned tour guiding companies or even cruise ships.
Interpretation Canada offers training workshops, a conference and networking opportunities for people interested in this profession. It is a great way to learn up to date information. Another group I belong to, the Alberta Teachers Association, has two specialist councils, the Science Council and the Global, Environmental and Outdoor Education Council. These organizations, as well as the Canadian Museums Association, Science Centre Associations and Environmental Associations all offer great conferences.
There are several other networking opportunities, depending on where you are located. In my local area, the Society of Educational Resource Groups networks all the organizations offering education programming and provides me with an additional way to stay current in the area. People want to learn about the environment. There will be a continuing need for interpreters to staff parks and tourist attractions because the human aspects of teaching are the most effective for learning.
Presently, I am enjoying the balance in my work. The guided walks, park promotion and teaching are rewarding hands-on activities. Later in my career, I see myself writing books and offering my services as a consultant to environmental organizations. Don’t do this job for the money. A good wage can be had but the best rewards are the people you teach and work with, the environment you experience every day, viewing wildlife and enjoying what you do. If you want to work as a park interpreter, be persistent, apply to many different places, increase your skills and keep your enthusiasm high. Don’t give up too soon, you will make it.
My day is 8:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. except when I work evenings or weekends to give a presentation or guided walk at a public event. During tourist seasons an interpreter is required to work weekends and take their days off during the week as most people are in the parks, museums or historic sites on weekends. It is very important to have good computer skills for word processing, email, Internet searches and preparing presentations. Public speaking, drama and music are also excellent skills to have. Interpersonal skills will be a benefit as well when you are interacting with many different types of people every day.
Over the last twenty-four years, I have worked in the environmental area at many different places doing a variety of roles. I am proud of my contribution to the Canadian Wilds section of the Calgary Zoo, the Energeum (energy museum), the parks and other tourist attractions where I have worked. People who share similar values to mine with regards to the environment have helped me along the way. My goal is to pass on the help and knowledge that was given to me. The response I receive from people by sparking their interest in nature and history assures me that I am making a difference in their lives.
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