Summer at SMEEC: Connecting with our Community

By Jonathan Ismail, SMEEC Programs Administrator

Summer can be an interesting time at South Mountain. While the desert is beautiful, temperatures are high; our visitor center has more limited hours and a different menu of programming.  With fewer guests and program participants during the hot summer months, we investigated ways to increase our overall impact and embarked on an entirely new type of program this summer: offsite outreach presentations at libraries, community centers and other childcare facilities.

I was initially a little intimidated by this task because I think of South Mountain as a wondrous place. How do I capture the colors, smells and sounds of the desert to share offsite? Can I really do justice to such a remarkable landscape? However, we knew that our presentations would fit a unique niche: not truly entertainment, nor replicating a formal school lesson. Finding ways to make our program special, while capturing the magic of the desert and without live animals or plants from our Sonoran desert landscape, was a unique challenge.

Working with our wonderful team here at SMEEC, and with input from colleagues in our education department at Phoenix Zoo, we investigated a number of promising themes: plant and animal superheroes of the desert, the saguaro as a cactus hotel and more. After many drafts, we settled on “Sun and Saguaros” as our theme, connecting the ideas of plant and animal adaptations with solar energy. The sun is an important resource in the desert, yet too much sun can be a bad thing – how do plants and animals adapt to our unique environment? 

We incorporated a nifty “solar cricket” – a toy resembling these humble insects with a solar panel on its back – to demonstrate how the sun is a source of energy: When exposed to sunlight, the cricket moves and can be manipulated demonstrate the effects of shade and different environments upon movement. This outdoor exploration, in tandem with lots of photos and biofacts (animal and plant artifacts), helped convey complex scientific concepts to over 300 youth this summer.

It was interesting to observe how different audiences interacted with our message. Throughout the Valley (we presented from Glendale to Chandler) youth had different ideas, plenty of knowledge and understandable misconceptions about the Sonoran Desert. Our South Mountain Environmental Education Center team has learned lots from our first summer of outreach, and eager to improve programs to reach even more youth next year!