Someone to Know: Chris Gingrich
Education Outreach Specialist Chris Gingrich's work at the District includes creating enriching educational programs and coming up with new ways to showcase the history of the preserves. He shares some of his experiences, including a surprise request during his first year at Kline Creek Farm.
Describe your job experience at the District: I started in 2005 at Kline Creek Farm, planning and conducting educational programs and events and administering the volunteer program. Since 2010 I’ve worked in Education, helping the Forest Preserve District’s education centers develop and evaluate programs, plan special events, promote educational programs to schools, Scout groups, and other audiences, and keep tabs on the changing needs of our visitors. I’ve recently been involved in researching the District’s history in preparation for its centennial celebration in 2015.
District accomplishment you're most proud to have been part of: In 2007 I noticed that school field trip attendance was dropping at Kline Creek Farm. I looked into reasons for the decline, speaking with other museums, talking with teachers, even finding out what teachers had to go through to obtain bus transportation. With that information we developed a new field trip called “Day at the Farm” that allows us to reach more students, accommodate teachers coming from further away, provide a better experience for students and increase revenues from field trips.
I still go out to help with the program. It’s great to see hundreds of kids spread out all over the farm enjoying themselves while they get a hands-on look at history, the science of plants and animals, and the natural resources that made this area attractive for settlement and development. It’s also great to see them learn that life was possible without smartphones and video games.
Name something that’s surprised you on the job: It was in my first year with the District, and I was on the staff at Kline Creek Farm. I had already worked for more than 10 years in museums, but most of that was in a traditional museum setting. Mark, the agricultural specialist, asked me to come to the barn to assist with “pulling a calf.” It was calving season and we had a heifer that was having trouble delivering her first calf, so I threw on my coat and followed him out to the barn. There stood the heifer, tied to a post with two calf-sized hooves sticking out. The next thing I know, Mark pulls out a small chain and wraps it around the hooves. He hands me one end of the chain while he takes the other and says, “Now pull!” That was the moment I realized I would learn things on this job that I would never have experienced in a “regular” museum. As Mark always liked to tell visitors when they were reluctant to participate in a farm activity, “The sign up front says this is a ‘living-history farm,’ not a ‘watching-history farm’.”
What was your first job? Describe it. I started my career at a small museum in West Chicago. We only had four staff members, so we all wore many hats. I was mostly responsible for educational programs but also did exhibit work, event planning, and research and writing. The most important lesson I learned was that it wasn’t enough to know the subject matter to make a museum successful. I had to learn to think like a marketer and understand what my audience wanted and to build programs and exhibits that fit their needs. That lesson applies to all of our Forest Preserve District programs and events. We can know a topic really well — whether it’s wildlife, plant species, ecosystems or the history of our preserves — but our visitors can only gain from that knowledge when we present it in a way that gives them a great experience. That may mean changing the time a program is offered to make it more convenient, using technology to enhance it, incorporating some humor, or just stepping back and letting visitors be immersed in the moment.
What's your favorite natural area? This is a tough one. I’m obviously partial to Kline Creek Farm, and there are all of the other education centers I work with, but as for a natural area, for now I’d have to say McDowell Grove. I’ve done a lot of research on the site, and the historian side of me is fascinated by its connections to big historical events, such as the Great Depression and World War II.
I’m also interested in the story of our relationship to the land. In the nine decades McDowell Grove has been a forest preserve, there have been huge changes to the landscape, each revealing how society’s knowledge and value of land use and stewardship have changed.
At McDowell Grove, early European settlers used the river to power mills. Farmers tilled the soil and created pastureland and hayfields. As the county grew and people wanted to protect the land, McDowell Grove became a preserve, but in the 1920s and 30s, people saw preserves more as parks than natural areas. Keeping with the philosophy of public parks at that time, which was to alter the landscape for human enjoyment, the District worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps at McDowell Grove to dam the river and dredge tons of earth to create islands, lagoons and new channels so people could boat and fish and picnic. But now, McDowell Grove is in a different phase. We’re applying the science of ecology and natural resource management to create and restore the habitat of the river and adjacent land.
Chris Gingrich discusses corn harvesting with a group of school children.