A week ago Sunday, I brought The Puzzle of Life to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (a.k.a. SAMO). The end result was fun, smiles, and several useful lessons learned. On my end, there were three useful take-home messages:
1) That The Puzzle of Life is a great outreach tool. I knew this, but confirmation is always nice.
2) Permanent Crayola markers aren’t actually that permanent. This is an unwelcome surprise when you’re trying to help kids create fun and lasting take-home science-art.
3) Marketing is (almost) everything. This is a very, very harsh truth. It hurts every time I’m reminded of it, but that hurt is a useful discomfort.
A little more detail:
The morning program took place at the Satwiwa Native American Cultural Center in the western end of SAMO (map). We had three participants: two kids and one adult. After a quick intro, I offered them each a choice of three challenges: coloring in our Yellowstone Coloringbook (here), searching out solutions to The Puzzle, or crafting brand-new Puzzle pieces to tell the story of Otters, Urchins, and Hidden Forests (here).
One young person chose the coloring book, worked on it for a while with some success, then headed out for a walk with her father. Kudos to them both for their adventurous spirit!
The other young person chose the storycrafting. He very thoughtfully followed the instructions in our guide, created the necessary storytelling-pieces, then told the story twice: once to me, and once to the rangers. Which was awesome!
Watching him work, I noticed that the ink from his markers was beading up on the surface of the blank Puzzle pieces. We set them aside, but even after 20 min of drying time, the marker colors would wipe right off the pieces. There was no way that his artwork would survive a trip home in a pocket or a bag. I felt terrible, and apologized to him for this. He replied, “No problem, I can always remake them at home.” With those words, he proved himself to be far more even-keeled than I. Wow.
His mother chose to work with The Puzzle. She rather quickly and easily found the first solution, so I offered her the silver-level pieces, and challenged her to find a more difficult solution. This was indeed a challenging challenge, but with a little help, she was successful in that too.
Later in the afternoon, I moved east to the King Gillette Ranch Visitor center, smack-dab in the center of SAMO. On the way over, I stopped at the craft store to find some better markers. Experiments showed that Sharpie markers had wonderfully bright colors, and had ink that stuck quickly and tightly to the surface of our blank Puzzle pieces. The Sharpie markers were also three times the price of the Crayola ones. While the price was unfortunate, the Sharpies were obviously necessary, so I traded in my Crayolas for Sharpies.
Arriving at KGR, I found that the outside temperature was well over 100 °F, so the rangers and I decided to hold the afternoon program inside the Visitor Center. We setup in their media room – tables, chairs, markers, and Puzzles. To our small, sad surprise, when 2:30 rolled around, the VC was empty. So we sat down to talk.
About a month ago, SAMO switched to a new calendar system. They ditched their printed quarterly magazine, and moved to an all-online format. This new system has two calendars. The first was easy-to find, but unattractive, and missing most of the events from the past month (including the two Puzzle events). The second calendar was beautiful and complete, but hidden, and only roughly in chronological order. As the rangers and I talked, some visitors walked in, asked about getting a paper copy of the now-extinct Outdoors, and walked out sad.
Clearly, this new calendar system contributed to our disappointingly small attendance. Clearly, continuing resource shortages at the NPS are causing harm to everyone. The people at the NPS are generally highly-skilled, but skill only takes you so far. At some point, when the workload gets too far beyond the reasonable, important things fall through the cracks – things like this calendar system migration. And everyone suffers.
Of course, part of it was my fault too. Ranger Razsa and I reviewed some of the many events that she’d hosted over the past six months. What made them successful? What drew in visitors? We concluded that my small Puzzle even blurb was only adequate. With a different picture and a different title, we might have been able to catch more people.
The punchline was then that marketing matters. The Puzzle of Life is a great outreach tool, as are the Santa Monica Mountains themselves. However, to get people to engage with these ideas and these places, you first have to get people in the door. That first step is marketing, and it’s a problem for everyone in education and outreach – myself, the NPS … everyone.