Research Summary

You Live in a Watershed! Informal Environmental Science Education with a State Park Exhibit

Visitors to nature center exhibit gained local watershed knowledge

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

Watersheds are complex systems and teaching about them can be challenging, particularly in an informal learning setting, such as a nature center. Informal education can teach about local issues with the goal of promoting improvements to the watersheds in which they are located. Previous research indicates that informal education should focus on the “bottom line,” or the most relevant information, rather than details that are less salient to the issue being presented. For this research, university students developed the You Live in a Watershed! exhibit, which was placed in a state park nature center. The exhibit featured the local landscape and emphasized the local impacts to water quality, such as agricultural runoff. The authors explored the impact of this exhibit on visitors’ knowledge, attitudes, and intention to take environmental action.

This research took place in the Hueston Woods State Park (HWSP) in Ohio. The authors conducted two studies on the You Live in a Watershed! exhibit to understand the effectiveness with different age groups. Study 1 was with 30 children from grades 3-8 that visited HWSP on a field trip from a local school. The researchers took them to the exhibit tour and presented questionnaires one week before and directly after the tour. One week before their field trip, the participants completed a survey with closed-ended questions to gauge their knowledge and attitudes about the watershed. The participants completed the same survey after spending 10-15 minutes interacting with the exhibit. Study 2 recruited 84 adult participants and divided them into two groups: 1) 40 visitors to the exhibit and 2) 44 non-visitors. The two groups did not differ demographically; most of the participants were from Ohio, though some were from nearby states. The researchers gave the same survey they used in Study 1 to visitors as they were leaving the nature center. They analyzed the data using statistics and compared the results within and across the two studies.

Overall, across both studies, the results indicated that participants learned about their local watershed by visiting the exhibit. The results regarding changes in attitudes was mixed and participants generally did not indicate any planned changes to behavior.

Study 1 participants reported significant knowledge and attitudes gains after interacting with the exhibit. The study found that older children learned more than younger children, which is likely due to the target audience of the exhibit. However, there was little evidence that the exhibit changed participants’ beliefs or plans to take environmental action. The authors found that participants also generally enjoyed interacting with the exhibit.

In Study 2, the participants who had visited the exhibit reported knowing more about watersheds than those who did not. However, visitors and non-visitors reported similar attitudes and neither group indicated intentions to take environmental action. The authors believe that this was due to the short interaction with the exhibit, and found that participants generally supported a more permanent learning center at HWSP.
This study has limitations. The results of the study are specific to this park and groups of participants; another larger study undertaken in another location may have different results. The authors also did not measure whether improvements to knowledge or attitudes were sustained over time. Furthermore, because Study 2 participants were only surveyed after visiting the exhibit, it is possible they had pre-existing knowledge about watersheds.
The authors recommend using exhibits at nature centers to teach visitors about local environmental issues. More elaborate or interactive exhibits may increase the time that visitors engage with information. To promote intentions to change behavior, designers of exhibits should explicitly address which behaviors visitors should take to address the environmental issues featured in the exhibit.

The Bottom Line

This study explored how an exhibit that featured local watershed issues in a nature center may have impacted knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and intention to take environmental behaviors. The authors collected data for two studies using the same survey; one study was with children on a field trip and the other explored differences in adult visitors versus non-visitors to the exhibit. The study found that the exhibit helped visitors learn about their local watershed but participants were not inspired to take action. They recommend using exhibits at nature centers to teach about local environmental issues as well as emphasizing what visitors can do to address these issues.