by Brenda Zollitsch, Policy Analyst, ASWM
The Association of State Wetland Managers (ASWM) has been working over the last year to increase access to high quality wetland training through a number of efforts, including the development of a series of hydric soils training webinars, which are now being developed into twelve online training modules for use by wetland professionals for anytime/anywhere learning. As ASWM developed the hydric soils remote training opportunities, there was always the understanding that while online training fills a critical gap for wetland professionals who cannot attend in-person trainings or workshops at the time they need to receive the training for their work, there is still an important role for on-the-ground training, especially in the area of hydric soils.
Hydric soils are complex and sites are often less then straightforward. Wetland professionals are often faced with problem soils. They may be asked to look at a restoration site, a site disturbed by construction activity, or a site that is currently transforming from one type of soil to another. Whatever the reason, having an opportunity to practice applying the knowledge learned in ASWM’s online training options is important. I was able to attend just such a training in October, offered as part of the NEIWPCC/MAWWG joint workshop in New Jersey.
Why does experiential learning make such a difference? While pictures are worth a thousand words, getting into a soil pit and trying out your skills is highly informative. In the case of the soils training I attended in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, it was fascinating to see so many who had taken the online training applying what they had learned. In most cases they were right or close with their assessments. However, those who participated shared that seeing the mottles up close, looking at intrusions and soil horizons in person takes learning to a whole new level. What seemed clear and easy to differentiate photos became less black and white in the field. This real-world application of knowledge again and again is what makes a strong delineator, a strong assessor.
So what did this on-the-ground training look like? The training started with the lead trainer making an overall introduction, explaining the site, discussing the different soil pits and what they represented within the Pine Barrens. After the intro, the large group was split into two smaller sets of approximately 20 wetland professionals each. The instructors had dug four large soil pits at different elevations along a slope, moving from clear hydric characteristics to more confused and unclear characteristics. The instructors, including soil specialists from EPA and NRCS, were incredibly helpful in working with each instructional group to point out key features, asking questions to help the participants find their way to answers, and allowing participants to get into the ground, touch the soils and examine the soils. Even participants who had worked with wetland soils for decades found that they still had questions for the trainers about the specifics of the sites and considerations based on what they were seeing.
By having access to soil test pits with experts to guide them, participants were provided the opportunity to try out skills. It was also clear through this field experience that there is an element of best professional judgement in all assessments, with characteristics dependent on where the pits are dug, the ways in which the site is documented, during what season and under what conditions — all play important roles. Working with experienced soil experts to guide this learning plays an invaluable role in increasing participant capabilities (and confidence in their own abilities) to assess hydric soils.
For all of these reasons, ASWM advocates for all who complete our hydric soils online training modules to also try to find a way to participate in or work with partners to develop an on-the-ground training component. To encourage this effort, ASWM is currently working with our hydric soils training team to develop a support document that will be available on the ASWM website in 2017 to provide guidance on how to create a strong supplemental experiential learning session to support what they learned online. This guidance document includes half-day, full-day, and two- and three-day training alternatives. It also provides specific training exercises, a list of materials/supplies needed to conduct each exercise, and recommendations for locations to deliver them. This draft document served as a guide for the training I attended in New Jersey.
ASWM understands that there are many different styles of learning and that knowledge is gained through a variety of methods. While online training continues to fill a critical gap for anytime/anywhere learning on foundation-building information, there is a need for both interactive experiences (see my recent Wetland Wanderer blog on the value of bringing wetland professionals together in interactive workshop settings) and on-the-ground opportunities to practice the skills they learned as concepts in their remote learning experiences under the guidance of expert trainers.
As always, we welcome any input on our efforts to improve access to high quality wetland training and, in this case, especially hydric soils training opportunities. Let us know of quality trainings you have participated in or led, so that we can share these with others.
As we enter the holiday season, in addition to good health, happiness and peace, in the New Year I wish you access to great training, an accumulation of helpful knowledge, and lots of quality training experiences that peak and satiate your curiosity!
I would like to extend a special thank you to the New England Biological Assessment of Wetlands Working Group (NEBAWWG), Mid-Atlantic Wetland Working Group (MAWWG), the onsite soil experts who conducted the training, Kimberly Roth of the New England Interstate Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC) and Kathleen Drake of EPA for their work in coordinating this training and ASWM’s documentation of the event.