How to Collaborate with a Scientist (or Park Interpreter), Illustrated

We teamed up with park rangers and researchers to increase opportunities for sharing science. Humorous illustrations show what we learned in the process.

By: Martha Merson, Nickolay Hristov, and Chris Tullar

a drawing of a woman holding an alligator while walking down a trail marked with a sign that says "please stay on trail." A child holding a shocked woman's hand points at the woman with the alligator.

Image © Chris Tullar. Used by permission.

Summertime visitors to Carlsbad Caverns National Park wait for dusk, when thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats emerge from their roosts inside the pitch-black caves. In the mid-2000s, scientists set up thermal cameras and computers outside the caves to estimate the bat population. Curious visitors asked them questions about their set up. The conversations faded after a brief exchange as visitors were quickly overwhelmed by the researchers’ explanations of their counting methods.

But once a park interpretive ranger joined the conversation, visitors gained a clearer understanding. The rangers and researchers recognized they had complementary expertise for talking about science with the public. Two of the scientists and I (Merson) teamed up to lead a project called Interpreters and Scientists Working on Our Parks (iSWOOP) to foster STEM learning among visitors.

a page with the title "Making Holes?" featuring text and an illustration of a woman carrying an alligator over her shoulder while walking down a path. A shocked woman holds the hand of a boy, who is pointing at the alligator

Image © Chris Tullar. Used by permission.

iSWOOP recognized that national parks are critically important, real-world, science “laboratories.” And park rangers have many opportunities to share that research. So we developed workshops for joint field work and professional development. Our aims were to inspire scientists and interpreters to find new opportunities to collaborate and to model how those collaborations could benefit them.

Rangers and researchers working in Indiana Dunes, Acadia, Joshua Tree, and Carlsbad Caverns national parks and Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve participated. In the process, we all found ourselves navigating institutional cultures as well as each other’s expectations. iSWOOP decided to share what we learned through lighthearted illustrations that poke fun at the ways people misunderstand each other.

a page with the title "Say It back" with text and an illustration of a group of people gathered around a table, with one person speaking into a microphone and the rest listening and taking notes

Image © Chris Tullar. Used by permission.

These images capitalize on scientific evidence that humor makes learning more memorable. People seeing a funny message are more apt to share it. This is evident when humorous memes travel across social networks with ease. The iSWOOP illustrations highlight the realities National Park Service employees and scientists face. They demonstrate how to foster mutually beneficial relationships between researchers, interpreters, and other park staff. And they show interpreters how to help scientists convey their ideas to the public.

Together, interpretive rangers and researchers can inspire visitors. They can raise the profile of parks as places for answering important questions. Figuring out how to collaborate may be frustrating, but the challenges can make us laugh too. We hope these illustrations offer new and humorous ways for park staff and scientists to understand each other’s perspectives.

A page with the title "Make It Mutual," with text and illustration of a woman pointing at a screen next to a table with a projector while a ranger with a notebook looks on.

Image © Chris Tullar. Used by permission.

The full set of illustrations is on the iSWOOP website.

About the authors

Headshot of smiling woman with brown hair and colorful neck scarf

Martha Merson is a STEM education researcher at TERC, a nonprofit organization in Cambridge, MA, that fosters STEM learning. Image © TERC. Used by permission.

Headshot of a man with brown hair in a blue shirt

Nickolay Hristov is a scientist and learning designer at TERC. Image © Nickolay Hristov. Used by permission.

Headshot of a smiling man with brown hair

Chris Tullar, who penned the illustrations, is a musician, artist, and fan of national parks. Image © Chris Tullar. Used by permission.

Acadia National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Indiana Dunes National Park, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, Joshua Tree National Park

Last updated: March 13, 2024