An Invitation To Learn
By Sandy Munoz
Photos: Courtesy of the City of Chandler
In April 2008, the city of Chandler, Ariz., held the grand opening of its newest facility and park—the Environmental Education Center (EEC) located in Veterans Oasis Park. In the five years since it opened, the center has had more than 150,000 visitors, and the staff members have learned much about what works—and what doesn’t—at a government-run, tax-funded nature center and park located in the middle of an urban environment.
The EEC has been touted as the gateway to Veterans Oasis Park, a 113-acre site. Those visitors who take the time to venture into a park’s visitor center or onsite nature center will find their experience to be that much more rewarding. Not only will they find a place where they can ask questions about the site and what there is to do and see, but they can learn about the unique attributes of the location and why it was set aside as a protected area.
Staff members have devised several creative ideas to bring in not only first-time visitors, but also park regulars. This has been accomplished by:
Creating and regularly rotating exhibits inside the center
Displaying live animals
Offering classes and programs on a wide range of subjects
Planning and hosting a full range of “signature” events.
The exhibits—including tabletop displays, wall hangings, and interpretive signage on a particular subject—are changed regularly, and are advertised in advance in the recreation division’s quarterly publication, Break Time , which lists class and program offerings. Providing information in advance, such as an upcoming exhibit on hummingbirds, may attract a Boy Scout or Girl Scout troop working to earn a badge on birding, or a group of birders visiting from out of state hoping to pick up some interesting information about hummers in Arizona. Live animals are popular with all ages, but especially young children, who often come into the EEC to check on the snakes and tarantulas living in the display cases in the lobby. Interpretive signs along the side of each case provide fun and useful information about the animal and its habitat. Each sign also includes tips about how to observe animals in the wild in a respectful and responsible manner.
Classes And Events
The city’s recreation division, under which the EEC is managed, is responsible for offering informative and affordable classes and programs to the public at its various facilities. All of the programs at the EEC are geared towards nature and the environment. Although class fees are set according to a department-wide fee policy, some programs are able to be offered at a low—or no—cost, which can help entice first-time participants. Over the years, staff members have found success offering classes on desert tortoises, gardening, composting, insects, nature photography, hiking, bird-watching, storytelling, and fishing, to name a few.
Signature events at the EEC are defined as large-scale special events that require no pre-registration and are free to the public, appropriate for all ages, and unique to the EEC. These events include the annual Dragonfly/Butterfly Bash, Family Volunteer Day, Outdoor Fishing Clinic, and Safety Expo. The site was dedicated in April to coincide with the annual Earth Day/Arbor Day celebration. Another popular event has been the Sonoran Sunset Series, now in its fifth season. The series features live, lakeside entertainment held in the park’s outdoor amphitheater in the evening during the fall and winter months, when the weather in Arizona is perfect for outdoor activities.
Working With Partners
The EEC has been successful in offering creative programs and events—and saving money in the process—by collaborating with local groups. Partnering with the Desert Rivers Audubon Society (DRAS), a local chapter of the National Audubon Society, has meant the city can offer free bird walks on a monthly basis during the cooler time of the year. These popular walks are supported by a local, in-kind sponsorship that DRAS obtained, and give the group a chance to increase its exposure to the public and its membership base at the same time.
The partnership between the city and DRAS began even before the park opened; several of the group’s members offered to conduct a baseline bird count of the site. Ongoing monthly surveys have been taken ever since, and have netted a comprehensive bird list for the park that includes more than 153 species. This is an important component in attracting one of the primary park users: birdwatchers. Finally, with the survey data uploaded onto popular websites like eBird, birders from all over the country are drawn to the park.
Another important partnership has been with the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s (AZGFD) Urban Fishing Program. While the city pays a yearly fee to AZGFD for stocking and helping to manage the 5-acre lake located just behind the EEC, AZGFD provides fishing instructors and gear during free workshops, with the largest one being an annual Urban Fishing Clinic that draws well over 1,000 people.
One more idea tied closely to the EEC’s success is the site’s ongoing use of volunteers. While having residents help out at a facility is nothing new, the EEC has given a new twist to the idea by creating and running a program called Green Teens. Green Teens began during the EEC’s first year of operation; the program utilizes local teenagers who have an interest in nature to assist with special events, camps, and exhibits. Members of the Green Teens group are vital in providing regular care to the EEC’s snakes, freeing up valuable staff time for other tasks.
Several members of the Boy Scouts have also come to the EEC seeking volunteer projects in order to earn their Eagle Scout badge. Through such projects over the past five years, the park has been the recipient of a number of improvements, including a memorial bench and shaded seating area, a compost bin, interpretive signage, trail and trail marker installations, and the installation of bat boxes and a desert tortoise habitat complete with a pond, vegetation, and a sprinkler system.
For those looking for ways to attract guests to your education center—remember what makes the facility unique, plan special events around key differentiators, and take advantage of community partners and volunteers.
Sandy Muñoz-Weingarten is the Naturalist and Recreation Superintendent for the Recreation Division of the Community Services Department in Chandler, Ariz. Reach her at email@example.com .