Interpreters and Scientists Working on Our Parks

Lead Staff:
Martha Merson

Related People

  • Nickolay Hristov, formerly of the Center for Design Innovation
  • Louise Allen, Winston-Salem State University


iSWOOP advances STEM learning among national park visitors by bringing together educators, scientists, and National Park Service (NPS) interpreters to incorporate site-based science into programs for the public. Project staff seek to build expertise within the interpreter and ranger community. iSWOOP staff engage with the researchers on site, and host sessions to help the rangers interpret complex data, and then ask informed questions of the researchers. When rangers come to a deeper understanding of the research, their interactions with visitors are transformed. Rangers learn how to guide visitors to answer their own or each other’s questions in order to build scientific literacy. iSWOOP is enhancing interpreter-visitor interactions in four ways, by providing interpreters with:

  • Direct contact with scientists doing research in the park in an interactive format.
  • Field-based experiences, increasing their awareness of scientific park-based research.
  • Compelling visual data and graphs which can function as a jumping off point for STEM learning.
  • Ongoing opportunities to reflect on and then improve their interactions with visitors, increasing their strategies for leveraging visitors’ questions for active inquiry.

Research Activity

iSWOOP encompasses several lines of research including the impact of professional development on participating interpreters and the success of the model at parks of different sizes, staffing patterns, and visitor use. These studies are led by external evaluator Cynthia Char. In order to facilitate closer ties and information sharing between interpreters and scientists, the project staff members have investigated scientific researchers’ preferences for outreach and education collaborations with park staff and interviewed rangers to better understand the format of research briefs that would be most helpful in advancing their work. Researchers Scott Pattison (of TERC, formerly of Institute for Learning Innovation) and Monae Verbeke (of Institute for Learning Innovation) have investigated visitors’ interests as expressed in conversations with park staff. Pattison and Merson are working on an instrument to elicit visitors’ interests.


Professional development and research coordinated by iSWOOP project leaders are increasing engagement with park-based research at a number of national park units. When interpreters are up to speed on the cutting-edge science going on at their parks, they can craft opportunities for visitors to hear about such research. iSWOOP sparks new interests and fuels long-term interests among park visitors in scientists’ methods, careers in science, research with relevance for policy and managing protected lands, and increases the value of parks in the eyes of the public as national parks serve as vital outdoor laboratories for better understanding our natural world.


iSWOOP_videohall2 from iSWOOP on Vimeo.

Additional Videos


Forist BE, Merson M, Allen LC and Hristov NI (2021) A Moving Dune, A Stunning View: Visitors’ Recollections of a Ranger-Led Hike at Indiana Dunes National Park. Front. Educ. 6:675672. 05 July 2021.

Caise Article: Finding a Way Forward: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Indiana Dunes National Park

Related Work

Guides for implementing iSWOOP Contact for more information.

If it Has to Last, NASP

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