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The Education Master Plan: Making Choices for the Future

Contributed by Eden Foster, The North Carolina Arboretum, Asheville, North Carolina, USA


Planning is about making choices. Everyone has more work than they can do. People are in this field because they are creative, innovative and when they identify a need they feel the urge to act upon it. However, both personally and institutionally, it is impossible to plan, develop and implement every good program idea that comes along.

So how do people make choices? How do they justify them? How do they adjust to the changing social, environmental, political and educational environments within which they live?

The North Carolina Arboretum is an emerging institution with a small staff, located in the magnificent mountains of Western North Carolina. The botanical, cultural and social heritage provides a wealth of opportunities for program planning as does the changing political climate. One of the first tasks as education coordinator was to begin developing a programmatic ‘road map’, to help guide the institutional choices for what education programs should be implemented first and then what should be done next.

Planning is often thought to be a luxury, one only the idle have time to indulge in. However, without a programmatic plan, education programs in botanical gardens run the risk of becoming unfocused, or worse, stale and unnecessary. In an effort to avoid these pitfalls, a plan was devised to collect information that would help staff identify the educational needs within North Carolina, then target specific projects that could be done well in order to meet those needs.

This information-gathering phase lasted months. It was called ‘Market-based Program Planning’ because the ideas were generated from outside the organisation. A primary source of information was a series of ten focus groups that were held in 1993, and periodically over the next several years. Included in this paper is information on planning and implementing a focus group session, a technique that was found to be particularly valuable and rewarding.

It became clear that choices must be made concerning which programs should be implemented first and that these decisions must be justified in some objective way to our Board of Directors and to other decision –makers affecting the future of the Arboretum. This next phase involves a system of three filters that are detailed in this paper. It is hoped that this system, modified to the needs of the reader, will be a useful planning tool for making choices for the future development of their garden.

Market-based education programming: step by step

Establish the design process with the Executive Director, Board members, other staff.

Establish goals and time frame for completion

Gather information
A) Internal Analysis

  • Review education program history
  • Identify current resources (staff, facilities, gardens, trails, funding
  • Tabulate and analyze response to current programs

B) External Analysis

  • Conduct focus groups
  • Attend conferences
  • Visit related educational institutions
  • Investigate American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta’s Resource Cente
  • Interview your professional counterparts at other gardens
  • Utilize questionnaires and surveys (teachers, current and potential students, etc.)
  • Poll your institution’s staff and volunteers in other departments
  • Carefully read and listen to local news media

Assimilate information

  • Assemble all program ideas from all sources
  • Identify relevant major trends based on the external analysis
  • Identify major program areas and audiences to be considered

Conceptualize and establish criteria, or ‘filters’, for selecting programs to be implemented

Select appropriate programs based on above criteria

Summarize findings and present to Executive Director and other decision makers

Develop work plans for personnel in your department

The Focus Group: An Effective Information-Gathering Tool

Guidelines used to establish focus group sessions for the education Master Plan at the north Carolina Arboretum:

  1. Identify the target areas to be studies, including age groups, related professions, interests
  2. Assemble lists of people and institutions to be represented in each target area. Eight to twelve participants per session is optimum
  3. Establish times and dates for each target area, choosing TWO different times for each focus group topic (two separate focus groups per topic). This gives you the opportunity to compare the ideas and suggestions for each topic. Two hours per session is ample time.
  4. Contact participants by phone, describing process and goals, and asking for their help. Give them a choice of meeting times.
  5. Send a written confirmation letter reviewing the ‘phone conversations, confirming the time, and outlining the discussion with the list of questions to be addressedYou can also send a brochure and the mission and goal statement of the institions.
  6. Provide a comfortable attractive place to meet. Ambience is important to the healthy flow of ideas
    • Refreshments appropriate to the hour
    • Be certain you will not be disturbed
    • Place name in front of each person in letters large enough to read across the table
    • Provide a list of all participants and their affiliations for each topic
    • Provide a copy of the outline sent earlier
    • A thank-you gift is great, perhaps a pen, note pad, small plant
  7. During the focus group session:
    • Sart on time
    • Introduce yourself, describe the purpose of the session and how the information will be used
    • Use the outline sent in advance to generate ideas. Begin by going around the room, but be flexible if dialogue begins among participants
    • Carefully take notes on everything said, noting who said it, wherever possible
    • It is important to remember that the facilitator does NOT contribute ideas, or accept or reject any ideas generated in the session. The role of the facilitator is to keep the discussion on track, to record ideas, to provide a positive atmosphere for sharing of ideas, and to review what is said at the end
    • Fifteen minutes prior to the scheduled ending time, wind-up the discussion, review your notes with the participants and ask for additional ideas. This is often the most productive time of the session
    • Ask if the review is accurate and complete
    • End on time
  8. Send thank-you notes immediately , then later send a summary of your findings if interest warrants.

Focus Group Session Outline

The following outline was mailed to each focus group participant, and was made available to them upon their arrival at the session. It provided a broad agenda for discussion, but allowed for enough flexibility to enable brainstorming to develop.

Dear Focus Group Participant:

Thank you very much for your willingness to participate in a ‘brainstorming’ session for the Education Master Plan for the North Carolina Arboretum. Your input will be invaluable to us as we examine the educational roles that the Arboretum will fill over the next several years.

Below is a list of general questions that we will address in our discussion:

  • What general trends in education seem important?
  • What are the important trends in your specific field as they relate to education?
  • Are there general trends in the fields of horticulture or landscape design with which you are familiar?
  • What are the existing or developing needs related to any of the above trends?
  • What are ways these needs can be addressed?
  • In what ways can the Arboretum fill these needs?
  • Can you identify major educational ‘niches’ that are not now being addressed that would be appropriate for the Arboretum?

Thank you for your help!

Teacher Survey for the Education Master Plan

The following survey was sent out to teachers.

Thank you for your help in filling out the survey below. Your responses will play a key role in formulating our future plans for education offerings at the Arboretum.

Prior to today, what, if anything, had you heard about The North Carolina Arboretum?

What grade level(s) do you teach? Are you a resource teacher?

Do you teach children with specieal needs? What are they?

What topics would you most like to see the Arboretum address? (Rank in order of preference)

  • Arbor Day activities
  • Gardening (hands-on and/or classroom activities)
  • School mini-arboretums
  • Ethnobotany (the study of people/plant relationships)
  • Recycling by nature and people
  • Careers in horticulture, landscape design, outdoor education, etc.
  • Environmental issues (which ones?):
  • Other (please describe):

What materials would be most useful to you? (Rank in order of preference)

  • Newsletter
  • Pre-field trip activity guide
  • Post-field trip activity guide
  • Videos
  • Slide presentations
  • Film strips
  • Supplemental reading materials and teacher’s guides
  • Classroom activities (please describe briefly):
  • Other (please describe):

Which specific objectives from the NC Standard Course of Study would you like to have additional supportive materials for? (You needn’t limit your thoughts to the science curriculum).

Do you have ideas on how the Arboretum could best help you as an educator with issues involved in curriculum integration?

Opportunity for Evaluation and Comments

The following evaluation form was used to gather information about the education program

Your opinion is important to us. We would very much appreciate your letting us know what you think about the lecture you have just attended. We would also like to hear any ideas you have about what you would like featured at the Arboretum in the future. By filling out this form you will help us to serve you better.

Title: Date:

Please circle the appropriate number:

Rate your general impression of the program you have just attended:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Poor Excellent

How helpful were the visual materials (handouts, slides, displays, plants, etc.)?
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Poor Excellent

Was the speaker clear and informative?
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Poor Excellent

Do you have suggestions for improving this program?

What education programs would you like to have the Arboretum offer in the future?

Please tell us something about yourself.

Please circle your gender: M F What is your occupation?

In what age category do you belong?:
___18-35 ___36-50 ___51-64 ___65+

How many miles did you drive one way? In what County do you live?

How did you hear about this program? If you read about it in the newspaper, please tell us which one.

How many other Arboretum programs have you attended?

Are you a member of The North carolina Arboretum Society? Yes No

Additional comments


Filter One

The following criteria were identified as primary considerations when examining education program ideas. Primary considerations may vary, or may include additional criteria. Each question should be answered with a yes or no. If any question is answered in the negative, the program does not go to the next stage or filter.

The following questions should be asked of each program being considered:

  1. Is it relevant to the Mission and Goal statement?
  2. Was the program generated as a result of the external analysis?
  3. Is the program relevant to an identified major trend?

Description of questions:

Mission and Goal: The North Carolina Arboretum’s Mission and Goal statement clearly identifies the major purposes and areas of activity that the Arboretum is involved in. Obviously, the relevance of a specific program to the mission and goals can be anywhere from strong to non-existent. If it is the latter, it will be eliminated at this point. If it is relevant at all, its strength will be evaluated in filter three.

External analysis: The External Analysis is the heart of Market Based Education Program Planning. In order for the program to advance to the next filter, a need must have been identified in the external analysis (surveys, focus groups, interviews, etc.). If the program need or idea was not generated as a result of this on-going external analysis, then it will be eliminated here.

Major Trend: A number of major trends were identified in the external analysis, and are periodically up-dated using focus groups. In order to be optimally effective, all programs should coordinate in some fashion with a major trend. Examples in North Carolina include: early childhood education (pre-school), School-to-Work career development, accountability of individual schools for student performance, gardening as the number one hobby in the United States, significant increases in retirees moving to Western North Carolina, rise in tourism in our area, etc. Trends in readers’ areas may vary from these, and will change over time.

Filter Two

This filter offers an opportunity to use a comparative scale to continue to rank programs. It is best to have the same person rank all programs, in order to remain consistent. Your filter may include additional criteria, or perhaps you are the ‘decision maker’ and need not be concerned with outside opinions of your program choices.

The following criteria should be rated on a scale of 1-10:

1 Complexity of implementation (1 = most complex, 10 = least complex)
9 Perceived ease of obtaining funding (1 = least likely, 10 = most likely)
10 Perceived impact on decision makers: (1 = no impact, 10 = significant impact)
11 Intuitive response of the reviewer (1 = negative response, 10 = positive response

Description of questions:

Complexity of implementation: Some programs require minimal input from the organisation’s staff and volunteers, little research, marketing and ‘up front’ work, and can generally ‘run themselves’. Others can quickly overwhelm an entire organisation. Most programs fall in between these two extremes. This criteria provides the opportunity for estimating the range of difficulty and amount of preliminary work or research that must be done in order to implement the program.

Perceived ease of obtaining funding: If funds have already been designated to the project or are easily obtainable, or if the program costs little to implement, then it will receive a high rating, here. If the reviewer cannot fathom a funding possibility, then it will receive a low rating. It should be noted that there is some subjectivity involved in this rating – it is only the perceived ease of funding that can be measured, as there is often no guarantee that a project will receive public or private funding, even if the likelihood seems high.

Perceived impact on decision makers: Most gardens are accountable to someone: a Board of Directors, local Commissioners, State or Federal legislators, funding sources, or perhaps the general public. Their perceptions of the value of a program are very important to the continuation of the garden or arboretum. If too many programs are deemed of little value by decision makers, the future of the garden could be brief.

Intuitive response of the reviewer: Often intuition is a key ingredient in a program’s success of failure, and is used here in an effort to balance more objective criteria. Intuition is not created in a vacuum, but rather, is based on the sum total of the reviewer’s professional experiences. Many programs are selected solely on the reviewer’s response, however it should only be one factor in a decision-making process.

Filter Three

At first glance, this filter may seem daunting and overly-complex. With a little practice, however, you can become quite proficient at using this system, and may choose to use it for every new program idea. A program that has reached this point needs to be further scrutinised as to its overall effectiveness and impact relative to other programs. Each criterion is rated on a scale of 1-10, with one being the least effective and 10 being the most effective. This rating is then multiplied by the weight, or priority of the criterion in question. Your criteria and their relative importance may vary from this list. The individual totals are then added to reach a final score. Again it is best to have the same reviewer do all programs in order to remain consistent.

Program name: Weight Rating

Total (weight X rate)

Date reviewed:

Supports mission and goal 15   
Increases institutional credibility in state 14   
Builds a valuable constituency base 13   
Enhances Arboretum’s value with decision makers 12   
Meets constituents’ need for program 11   
Increases perceptual cost of not doing program 10   
Has positive impact on public judgement 9   
Enhances opportunities for collaboration 8   
Blends with current mix of activities 7   
Has a favourable cost/benefit ratio 6   
Increases investment toward a targeted whole 5   
Has potential for volunteer/financial help 4   
Is appropriate for developmental stage of audience 3   
Is difficult to defer to a future date 2   
Intuitive response of reviewer 1