Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Wetland Wanderer: Bring Them Together and Let them Loose

by Brenda Zollitsch, Policy Analyst, ASWM

I recently had the privilege to witness some wetland magic.  I was invited to participate in the inter-regional meeting of the New England Biological Assessment of Wetlands Workgroup (NEBAWWG) and Mid Atlantic Wetland Working Group (MAWWG) in New Jersey.  Wetland professionals, especially those working on state issues, convened for a rigorous program of learning and exploring together.  This blog emerged from wanting to share the continued importance of this kind of training.  pinelands1While ASWM and others identify new ways to meet training needs through webinars and online training modules, we want to remain clear that there is a tremendous and irreplaceable value to face-to-face interactions and shared experiential learning.

Each year, we find this to be true at the Association of State Wetland Managers State-Tribal-Federal Coordination Meeting in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Most state and tribal wetland staff, consultants and partners are generally not in regular contact with others who have the same knowledge, background and responsibilities to manage and protect wetlands.  When they DO get together, something magical seems to happen: Ideas.  Energy.  Collaboration.

This could not have been more true at the joint NEBAWWG-MAWWG event in New Jersey.  The agenda was jam packed with opportunities to share expertise.  Organizers included new approaches to getting information out, such as flash talks and networking sessions. While it is important to share ideas, being able to assess and adapt them for one’s own work is essential for the true transfer of knowledge from one professional to another and network2from one state to another.  The three-day meeting provided opportunities for people to find each other and talk about what they wanted to do with the information they learned. It was important to bring people together and also provide time in the agenda to let them loose to learn from each other and follow-up with direct discussions on information most important to them.

I have been thinking about this process and its importance since returning from the meeting.  As I have mulled over why these types of experiences are so valuable, a number of key themes emerged.  Today, I thought I would share them with you:

  1. explore3Learning requires more than just listening and absorbing: The value-added from dialogue
    In today’s world we frequently find ourselves consuming snipits of information – short, condensed instruction or ideas, often without the benefit of context or time for introspection.  When taking time out to be present and interactive with others, ideas can grow from a soundbite to a well-formulated and analyzed opportunity.
  2. More than the Learning Objectives
    During the session I came away with formed ideas about how to bring together two groups of people to address a problem and several ideas on how to strengthen a project we have upcoming on permitting pipeline projects to protect wetlands.  This points to another value of this type of learning experience – I acquired ideas that I needed for my work.   While ASWM and the training world in general understand that a characteristic of high quality training is having learning objectives, opportunities like this for face-to-face interaction and sharing sessions enhances the pinelands11presentations’ learning objectives.  Each person at that conference came away from the session with something useful, specific to their needs.  This is the value of being able to pursue specific elements of a program and follow-up on it directly with trainers and other participants.
  3. The joy of joint exploration and shared experienceExperiences like this provide value in terms of bringing people together to share and explore issues jointly.  Successful meetings and workshops develop sort of a “cohort” – people who now have a shared experience that they can reference again in the future and that builds social capital among participants who connect with one another.  We will surely remember our time together in the glorious sunshine on the Jersey Pine Barrens.  We will remember specific presenters who had people laughing, and the experience of dining on delicious food along an estuary. Shared experiences breed opportunities to find support and develop collaboration in the future.
  4. The human need to test against other people’s experiences
    It is training5human nature to want to see what other people think, how they react, what they think is possible and how feasible new ideas are.  By bringing people together they get that reality check, maybe half of the people here have done something like this before and it wasn’t a disaster…or that if we all try this together, we can compare notes.  This is often absent from an online training experience.
  5. The speed of being able to resource new ideas
    One of the things that I noticed most was how fast participants who were interested in a topic were able to resource that learning right there.  With immediate access to the presenters and others who were exploring the same issues and their application, participants were able to gather information, craft plans and form partnerships all at one time.
  6. Ideas can take on new characteristics as a result of joint experiences
    Finally, at a session such as this, the presenters often learn as much as the participants.  The dialogue and flow of ideas between all involved lead to immediate expansion of ideas.  Those that support or question the information that is presented rapidly emerge.  Considerations, possible barriers and opportunities can be discussed in real time.    In this situation it is possible to experience fluid, organic learning.  A topic, idea, or approach can take on new characteristics.

benefit6In conclusion, the benefits of this kind of training are manifold.  Efforts should be made to ensure such opportunities continue to be available to wetland professionals.  As we look to the future of wetland training across the nation, we need to remember the importance and value of continuing to provide face-to-face, in-person training opportunities.  We need to continue to incorporate time at these types of training sessions to allow for networking and learning.  We also need to explore ways to incorporate as much of this type of experience into online and other training opportunities as we can.  As we move forward, we need to think about ways to create a sense of online “community” in the training sphere.  Some possibilities could potentially include having technical chat rooms/forums, facilitating networking calls for participants, and perhaps even online spaces for informal connections between wetland professionals.

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