Education in European Geoparks
European Geoparks can make a major contribution to informal and formal education by sharing their accumulated scientific, historical and cultural knowledge, skills and values with visitors of all ages. In the broadest sense, geoparks are centres for informal education providing tourists with informative and enjoyable experiences which enhance their appreciation of the landscape and culture. They also create an understanding of the need to manage access to popular sites in order to minimize damage to the environment and preserve the natural and geological heritage for future generations. Geoparks also serve as outdoor laboratories for formal, traditional education and research in which the main target groups are schoolchildren and university students. These educational activities can enhance the transferable skills of individuals and thus contribute indirectly to their social and economic prospects.
The informal communication of knowledge is an activity common to all geoparks. Exhibitions in information centres and local museums usually tell the story of the Earth’s history and chronicle the geoparks’ geology, natural history, archaeology and culture through panels and visual images, sometimes accompanied by books and leaflets. Terra. Vita Geopark, Germany, for example, reconciles the interests of tourists and scientists by using the concept of stage design for exhibitions in its Information Centre. This geopark is also investigating the potential for using the high–tech treasure hunting game geocaching as a new approach to encourage visitors to learn about the landscape. The exhibition area in the headquarters of Luberon Geopark, France, enables visitors to appreciate its landscape and geological history and to understand the necessity for conserving the Earth’s heritage preserved in rocks, fossils and minerals.
By emphasizing their unique geological heritage, geoparks attract geotourists who wish to develop their knowledge and appreciation of the geology and geomorphology of a territory. Catering for this special interest requires the design of websites with detailed geological and geomorphological information, and the production of leaflets, guide books and panels interpreting geosites and enabling geotourists to enhance their knowledge through onsite experiences. Geotourists can also get a sense of the significance of geosites within a wider context by following geotrails and reading geological maps in accompanying guides to the landscape, e.g. Exploring the Landscape of Assynt, a walkers’ guide to the North West Highlands Geopark, Scotland. Sobrarbe Geopark, Spain, provides ‘clues’ along cycle trails which allow the geotourist to reconstruct the geopark’s geological history. However, even if geosites are interpreted with geotourists in mind, other visitors to these sites cannot fail to be fascinated to learn that they are standing in landscapes which may have in the past, as revealed by their geology, been situated in different latitudes, climates and environments or exposed to high temperatures, pressures and deformational forces several kilometres below the surface.
In addition to providing interpretational tools for geotourists, geoparks also cater for a wide range of tourism interests, including ecotourism, cultural history, archaeology and industrial archaeology. Serving these interests also requires the provision of illustrated, subject specific leaflets, site specific panels or the inclusion of non geological information and interpretation in panels erected at geosites.
In the field of formal education, geoparks provide ideal destinations for school and university courses requiring experiences in field work. They are also providers of materials and services to school teachers and can serve as vocational training centres. For instance, Cardiff University uses Fforest Fawr Geopark, Wales, for training Environmental Geoscience students in geological mapping and analysing water quality in streams. The Geopark Swabian Alb, Germany, describes a programme in which high school pupils chose two geosites for which they developed and designed panels. This is an example of pupils acquiring transferable skills through research, the collection and selection of data, interacting with staff from the University of Tübingen and engaging with communities, property owners and authorities involved in conservation within the geopark. The GeoBox project developed by Eisenwurzen Geopark, Austria, provided schoolchildren with a programme of research concerned with the erosion, transport and deposition of river gravels which introduced them to the discipline of project design and creating an exhibition. In Portugal, the concepts of geosites and geological heritage are embedded in the school curriculum and modules on geoconservation are delivered in the undergraduate degree courses of several universities. Consequently the staffs of Naturtejo and Arouca Geoparks provide classroom activities and organize fieldtrips for schools. The significance of the water cycle in groundwater transport and extraction provides geoparks with an attractive multidisciplinary topic for environmental education. Designing and disseminating geo-educational tools are also important geopark activities. For example the ‘Geokids’ programme in the Geopark Bergstrasse-Odenwald, Germany, is an interactive programme for children aged 8 to 12 which provides teachers with information for project weeks, one-day hiking tours and out-door projects. The North Pennines AONB Geopark, England has, through its Rockworks project, generated lesson plans, worksheets and 20 ‘rock boxes’ enabling local schoolteachers to use the region’s geology and landscape in delivering components of England’s National Curriculum. The Vocational Training Centre at the Natural History Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest, Greece, provides training for young unemployed adults in the techniques of excavating and preserving fossils, visitor management and the promotion of geoparks.
European Geoparks are constantly challenged to increase visitor numbers by providing enjoyable, stimulating and memorable experiences. Fulfilling the interests of tourists seeking knowledge as well as satisfying the educational aspirations of students of all ages can contribute significantly to this aim. Cooperation between European Geoparks through the sharing of good practice in providing tourism linked informal education and developing geoparks as destinations for formal education can be a significant factor in the economic and cultural growth of a region.