How One NPS Employee Turned Her Big Idea about Muppets into a Big Online Adventure for Kids

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This past spring, Muppets Elmo and Murray learned how birds build nests at Gateway National Park and how the seasons change at the Grand Canyon. They talked with park rangers about concepts like why animals need “habitat” and what it means for them to be “endangered.” These are just a few ways that preschoolers from across the country are now exploring our nation’s best idea through the new six-part online video series, Sesame Street Explores National Parks. Although bringing this concept to life was the product of a diverse team across multiple organizations, the project began as just an idea—thought up by NPS Public Affairs Officer Maureen Oltrogge.

Maureen OltroggeMaureen came up with the idea while she was attending the Park Service’s GOAL (Generating Organizational Advancement and Leadership) Academy. This prestigious and intensive ten-month training program aims to cultivate and prepare the next generation of NPS leaders. As a part of the program, students are required to develop a project that serves the NPS mission using the skills they’ve developed at GOAL, like self-awareness, resilience, building effective teams, conflict management, leading change, executive leadership, and leveraging resources. Like most good ideas, Maureen’s came to her in what she describes as a “flashbulb moment” while watching a segment about Sesame Street’s 40th anniversary on CBS Sunday Morning.

As her final project for the GOAL Academy, Maureen built out the project’s overall strategy and assembled a team of fellow classmates that would eventually help her take her idea to the finish line. Three years later, with the help of her GOAL Team, Grand Canyon’s Environmental Education Staff, and several other colleagues across the National Park Service from D.C. to the Southwest, Maureen’s “class project” is now the most trafficked series on Sesame Street’s website.

[youtube url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nKUX_4Ih0M” width=”660″]

Maureen credits the program for giving her and her team the tools, support, and creative space to pursue a project outside the scope of their regular duties. When employees are given the space to explore, innovate, and create, great things really can and do happen. One of the more famous examples in recent past around this principle is Gmail’s much talked about genesis story. The product of a small group of employees, the now ubiquitous digital mailbox was created out of the 20-percent free time that Google encourages employees to take in order to work on something company-related that interests them.

While the Park Service and Google operate in very different spaces, principles around getting the best out of your workforce ring true whether you’re in the public or private sector. And NPS’ GOAL program is just one of the examples of how NPS is embracing these best practices.

Maureen also recognizes GOAL for giving her the skills she needed to not only come up with the idea, but actualize it. “Producing a project centered on building an effective partnership with Sesame Street was both exciting and scary,” said Maureen, who before joining GOAL “didn’t have much experience with partnerships.” But through the program, Maureen developed crucial skills around building successful partnerships across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. It’s this focus on comprehensive leadership skill-building that led NPCA’s Center for Park Management to become an early GOAL supporter—contributing to the program’s design and overall strategy.

Three years after graduating from the program, this independent project turned full-scale partnership is now connecting millions of children to our national parks, building park relevancy for years to come. And for Maureen, it’s “one of the accomplishments [she’s] most proud of in 27 years in the Park Service.” Now that sounds like time well spent.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Anderson is former program manager for NPCA's Center for Park Management