Search For:

Share This

No Title 2804

Naturalists in training

The work of interpretation

Naturalists in training

As an educator with more than 30 years of experience, Wren Smith has concluded that “knowledge is strange. It really becomes yours when you give it away.” This insight offers the cornerstone for the Naturalists in Training (NIT) program she has developed over the years for Bernheim.

The program strives not only to train naturalists with scientific knowledge, but to provide them with skills for sharing their passions, so that they can, as volunteers, effectively support Bernheim’s mission. The NIT program is a carefully designed chain of knowledge sharing and was named Outstanding Environmental Education Program of the Year in 2006 by the Kentucky Association of Environmental Education.

Smith devises classes for the participants such as the “Interpretive Smorgasbord”�an educational feast at which all of the budding naturalists share a seven-minute natural history lesson they can build on when they begin offering their own interpretive skills to the public. Smith has decked the education center table with artifacts�bird nests, opossum pelts, seed pods, and osage oranges. For their smorgasbord “appetizer” each participant is challenged to connect some “intangibles” (ideas like hope, mystery, determination) with a tangible object from the table.

Tony Cecil, a member of the program since 2001, picks up a bird’s nest and explains that the builder’s determination to create a home can be seen in the construction of this solid nest from all these loose sticks and twigs; the mystery is how the bird manages such a feat. For his presentation, Tony introduces a best friend�the walking stick that helps him access an incredible world of natural experience. Tony started walking his dogs at Bernheim before he retired. After retirement, the NIT program now has him guiding hikes to remote locations in the park, offering tours for busloads of folks from local assisted-living homes, and sharing his photography with visitors.

“I’ve gotten a lot more out of it than Bernheim has,” Cecil says about the NIT class. It’s clear, however, that Bernheim and the hundreds of thousands of yearly visitors benefit tremendously from people like Cecil sharing what they’ve learned from Smith.

Wally Roberts of the Kentucky Society of Natural History explains that it was just this “multiplying effect” in Smith’s work that earned her the 2010 distinction as Naturalist of the Year.

To find out more about the Naturalist in Training program, you can contact Smith by e-mail at:

The work of interpretation

Interpretation might not be the first word that comes to mind when we think of naturalists and park rangers guiding the public through the woods and the wilds, but translation is at the heart of their job, helping everyday people to understand the mysterious language of nature�and interpretation is the official name for much of their work.

Today, nationally recognized Certified Interpretive Guide (CIG) training is offered at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest�an opportunity for anyone over age 16 to explore what might become their dream job working for the state parks, National Park Service, a wildlife refuge, or an arboretum and research forest like Bernheim.

Program graduate Karen Kaye says, “I feel certain this credential was important in earning my volunteer opportunity with the Eagle River Nature Center, in Chugach State Park, Alaska, in 2006, and most recently in Table Mountain National Park, in Cape Town, South Africa.” Another graduate, Roger Conn, went on to work at Yosemite National Park.

Wren Smith�Bernheim’s interpretive programs manager�was the first Kentuckian qualified as a trainer. She explains that CIG training “offers everyone the same language for talking about themes and universal concepts, helping us to better connect people with nature.” Inspiring the public to explore intangible ideas like freedom and devotion through the tangible beauty of soaring hawks and mother raccoons is an important part of being a naturalist and a park guide.

“People might think that just facts will move people,” says Smith, “but I believe you need to help them find the connection, the relationships with nature.” Smith and her students use their interpretive skills to support the big Bernheim programs like ColorFest, BugFest, BloomFest, and the ECO-Kids Discovery Days.

Wally Roberts of the Kentucky Society of Natural History explains that Smith was honored as Naturalist of the Year for 2010 in part because of her great skill as an interpreter. “You don’t just learn the names working with Wren,” says Wally, “but the stories behind the names, how we interact with and affect plants and animals and the whole planet. She’s one of the best for helping people make connections�from children to senior citizens, and everyone in between.”

For more information about the Certified Interpretive Guide Training at Bernheim, contact Wren by e-mail at:

To read the Kentucky Living February 2012 feature that goes along with this supplement, go to Wren Smith: Training People to See Nature.

Back to Top

Don't Leave! Sign up for Kentucky Living updates ...

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.