Research Summary

Environmental art as an innovative medium for environmental education in Biosphere Reserves

Impacts of Environmental Art in Biosphere Reserves on Building Environmental Understanding

Environmental Education Research
2017

UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserves Initiative, established in 1976, is intended support environmental education (EE) through the preservation of natural areas as learning sites. Unlike many other protected lands, biosphere reserves emphasize human-environment interactions. Biosphere reserves advance EE through fostering connection to nature and education-based programming. Some biosphere reserves use environmental art (EA) as component of EE at the reserve. EA seeks to bring attention environmental issues through various art forms, sometimes by using natural items as the medium. The researchers explored how EA can contribute to EE goals in two biosphere reserves.

Research indicates that EA may elicit strong emotions from viewers, leading to heightened curiosity to learn more about environmental issues as well intentions to take action to solve issues highlighted in the art. The researchers believed that EA at biosphere reserves could complement other educational opportunities at these sites. Based on previous research, the researchers proposed that using art as a learning tool could increase curiosity and provide an opportunity for viewers to engage with environmental issues. Research has shown that EA can foster dialogue, as well as facilitate sharing of ideas and insights to gain deeper awareness of environmental issues. Both the content of the art and dialogue about the subject matter can lead to improved environmental knowledge and concern. EA may bring attention to a specific place; engaging with artwork may help individuals feel a sense of place and affinity for the land. Environmental concern can lead to increase in pro-environmental attitudes, which has the potential to translate to pro-environmental behavior and encourage people to learn more about the environmental issues.

This study took place at the Noosa Biosphere Reserve (Noosa BR) in Queensland, Australia, and the North Devon Biosphere Reserve (NDBR) in southwest England. Four programs at these biosphere reserves are case studies in this research, and all four featured artwork influenced by the local environment and an educational component. Noosa BR hosts an environmental art festival every other year called Floating Land that includes a variety of mediums, such as dance, film, and sculpture. Floating Land is community-focused and themed each year for a different environmental issue, such as climate change or water issues. Floating Land also includes educational programming and a workshop that promotes further dialogue among artists, scientists, and festival attendees. To gather data at Floating Land at Noosa BR, the researchers surveyed 120 festival attendees and 30 workshop participants, all of which volunteered to take the survey. In addition, researchers sent questionnaires before and after the event to community members, and received completed pre- and post-surveys from 36 residents. This questionnaire asked respondents about their environmental knowledge, environmental behaviors, environmental attitudes, sense of place, and behavior change intentions.

Three EA initiatives at NDBR were included in this study. Sea4Life brings together educators, scientists, artists, and students to explore at issues related marine ecology. Confluence is an NDBR program in which artists work with students to craft creative visualizations of remote sensing data. The third NDBR program is Giants in the Forest, which looks at the changing environment by highlighting specific plants in an artistic way and promoting social media depictions of the plant-based art. To collect data, the researchers conducted interviews with four individuals, all of whom were previously involved with NDBR endeavors: an artist, an ecologist, an art administrator, and a Biosphere Foundation member. The authors also conducted site visits to NDBR and analyzed documents, such as reports and teaching materials. For this study and across all four programs, the researchers chose to focus only on the open-ended survey questions and interviews and analyzed them by identifying themes.

Overall, the authors found that EA helped both biosphere reserves achieve their EE goals. Their results suggest that participants deepened their sense of place, as well as increased both environmental knowledge and environmental concern.

At Noosa BR, the authors found that Floating Land participants felt that the social engagement was particularly beneficial and helped to contribute to their understanding of environmental issues. In addition, the study found that artwork elicited emotional responses from some respondents, leading to more awareness of and concern about environmental issues. Some respondents reported feeling more hopeful about the environment and about other people’s environmental attitudes after attending the festival. Some participants also reported feeling a renewed love of and appreciation for nature. The authors also found that 75% of the community member respondents felt more pride in their town and its natural beauty and resources after Floating Land. The authors claim this pride contributes to a sense of place, which can increase pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors. Some also reported a heightened sense of place, community, and belonging. Even though many of these people attended the festival for reasons other than the environment, 41% of the Floating Land respondents indicated plans to take more pro-environmental behaviors.

At NDBR, the study concluded that the environmental art in all three programs resulted in learning, dialogue, and understanding—all of which were objectives of environmental education at the biosphere reserve. Each program facilitated place-based learning and promoted engagement with local environmental issues. The Confluence program brought together over 500 students with project partners to foster dialogue and idea exchange on cross-disciplinary issues. One interviewee claimed that this program was able to “reveal the invisible” about the environment. Another interviewee said that this project drove him to act in more sustainably.

This study is limited by its focus on just two biosphere reserves and relatively few participants. The findings of similar studies at different reserves might vary. More research is needed, specifically larger and/or long-term studies, in order to further understand the impacts of environmental art more broadly.

The authors recommend that all biosphere reserves incorporate environmental art programs. EA successfully helped the biosphere reserves in this study achieve their goals, including educating the visitors especially who live nearby, creating a sense of places, encouraging attendees to continue to learn about the environment, and promoting pro-environmental behavior change.

The Bottom Line

This study found that environmental art (EA) was a powerful tool at two biosphere reserves, which are natural areas that emphasize sustainability and conservation. Four programs at Noosa Biosphere Reserve, in Australia, and North Devon Biosphere Reserve, in England, served as case studies to evaluate the impact of EA programs on fostering environmental identities, sense of place, idea exchange, and knowledge. The authors found that environmental art can contribute to greater environmental concern, which has the capacity to change behaviors. In addition, results indicated EA was an effective tool when integrated with scientific environmental learning. Because of environmental art’s ability to promote behavior change, help people emotionally connect with the environment, and build sense of place, the authors strongly recommend that other biosphere reserves integrate EA into their programming.