Natural history is the description of nature and differs from ecology in placing less emphasis on quantification and more on careful observation. The overarching goal is to elucidate patterns and relationships in the natural world and assimilate this information into human affairs. It uses traditional and modern tools, often with an aesthetic component, to differentiate the natural world, and focuses on identification, life history, distribution, abundance and interrelationships among and between individuals, populations and species.
The field has a long and distinguished history including figures such as Darwin, Wallace and E. O. Wilson who are recognized for their seminal contributions to biology and ecology. Following a meteoric rise in popularity during the 19th century, natural history declined as new experimental and quantitative approaches came to dominate biology. In recent years, however, both the recognition of the role of biology in a holistic view of the planet, and the increasing emphasis on the value of education as the key to a sustainable future, have brought about a resurgence of interest in natural history and, crucially, its interpretation. Interpretation is defined as a communications process that reveals meanings and relationships about natural, cultural, historical and recreational resources. While interpretation may be viewed as a process to communicate any subject matter, historically it has always been linked with natural history. The methods of interpretation were forged by naturalists.
Interpretation and environmental education work hand in hand to help make connections between the world of science and the general public. Through the art of interpretation, students will learn how to help people make connections with the natural world and science.
The courses associated with the undergraduate major in natural history and interpretation reflect the interdisciplinary and holistic nature of this subject area. Students become well grounded in the natural sciences and in the skills specific to communication and informal education. This major seeks to integrate training in organismal biology, including a required field component, with in-depth training in the literature and context of natural history and a suite of environmental interpretation offerings. Students gain work experiences through an internship, where the recently acquired knowledge and skills in this arena can be applied.
The program prepares students for employment in nature centers, science museums, federal and state agencies, zoos, urban parks, arboreta, environmental education centers and aquaria, as well as in the ecotourism industry and travel agencies that sponsor natural history opportunities, such as birding and whale watching. Training in natural history and interpretation also provides a strong basis for a rewarding career in teaching and can act as a springboard for entry into graduate programs.