From Jenny McGuigan, School Program Coordinator, Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, Townsend, Tennessee.
The implementation of BEETLES transformed our program in a variety of ways. The discussions within sessions helped reveal where we wanted to be, and the session activities showed us ways to get there. It inspired us to question a lot of things we were doing. We realized that we didn’t fully understand our own programs’ goals. It inspired us to change some of our curriculum. We ended up implementing BEETLES and doing strategic planning at the same time. It was frustrating at times but led us to figure out a lot about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to tell our story about what we do.
It helped to professionally develop our staff. Many instructors were “opened up” by the experience, including some hard nuts to crack. For a few staff, it rocked their world. Some of our team needed to get the tools and breakdown of the process offered by BEETLES, as well as the confidence from successful implementation. Some thought they were already being student-centered but realized they weren’t. It made some of our instructors nervous to give power over to students, and it was enlightening for them to see it work so well when they did. It pulled out things we weren’t able to express together, increased dialogue between staff, and gave us a new shared language to use to communicate. At the end of each professional learning session, not everyone was happy. But it made us take the time to have the conversations that were needed. In some ways, we were an old program stuck in its ways. BEETLES rejuvenated us and helped instructors understand that it’s okay to struggle in your growth as a professional. It made us more relevant and current in education.
We work with a lot of classroom teachers who present some of our programming, and we conduct a lot of professional learning. The way professional learning was conducted at the BEETLES Institute has served as a model for us. We don’t want to offer “island” experiences anymore but now offer more ongoing professional learning. We’re better educators and professional developers, and students and teachers get a better product from us. We’re better at assessing ourselves and assessing students.
We invited National Park Service employees to most of our trainings. They do day programs, and we do residential programs, with many overlapping children. A handful of NPS staff showed up, but it was enough to inspire change. In particular, I Notice, I Wonder, It Reminds Me Of and Questioning Strategies inspired them to radically change their curriculum and approach. They got rid of certain lecture introductions and now get participants exploring quickly. This has really helped us to be more in sync with one another, which has allowed us to build on what children are learning in our respective programs.
In the first 20 minutes of the first BEETLES session, we got into a long discussion on whether it was more important to do adventure, science, or to have fun. Eventually, through BEETLES sessions and the discussions they inspired, we learned how we could teach science, have adventures, hit standards, have fun, and stay safe.
We even brought BEETLES to a board meeting. The board had expressed that they wanted our program to be excellent and cutting edge. So we took 15–20 minutes of a board meeting to do a snippet of Decomposition Mission (we brought in decomposing leaves for them to work with), and then we used this brief experience to explain a little about BEETLES and the changes we were implementing. It was very well received, and we hope it will inspire them to support and fund us in the future.