Expanding human populations and sprawling urban areas are increasing human–wildlife interactions. When human–wildlife populations overlap, discussions around coexistence become more important—and yet potentially more difficult, especially with species that are perceived to be threatening, such as bears, wolves, and coyotes. To mitigate conflict and enhance public safety, coexistence requires an educated and engaged public. Typically, environmental and conservation educators and interpreters present wildlife education in a passive manner, such as through presentations, pamphlets, and signage. Yet, research has demonstrated that this type of knowledge dissemination alone rarely changes people's attitudes or behaviors. More recently, research based on learning and behavioral sciences has found that educators and interpreters can improve wildlife education programs by using more engaging experiential tactics, which provide an interactive foundation for understanding knowledge acquisition, formation, and retention.
To further investigate the link between experiential learning and wildlife education, this study's authors created a coyote education program to target attitudes, risk perceptions, and preventative measures toward coming into contact with coyotes. They conducted the program, Sharing Space: Living with Coyotes, in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia, Canada, where a coyote caused a human fatality in 2009. This event caused more negative attitudes and fear among local residents. The authors tested the effectiveness of the program by measuring changes in participants pre- and post-attitudes and emotions toward interactions with coyotes.
The program's creators designed it around the experiential learning framework. Specifically, the framework's focus is on engaging participants in a challenging situation where an educator facilitates learning experiences and the participant(s) work through and process the experiences individually or in groups. The experiential learning process includes stages of experience, reflection, generalization, and application, while incorporating elements of thinking, feeling, perceiving, and behaving. All of these occur while connecting the learner to the task, activity, and location.
Sharing Space: Living with Coyotes had five modules, each of which use the experiential learning cycle: (1) understanding personal attitudes, (2) perceived and actual risk of human–coyote interactions, (3) being a coyote, (4) stop being a coyote yard sale, and (5) becoming a coyote ninja. The becoming a coyote ninja activity, for example, gets participants to physically practice the appropriate behaviors they should take in response to different types of coyote interactions, such as sightings versus attacks. The opportunity to physically embody and practice moves helped participants understand the actions and embrace the power they possess to defend themselves. The group work, reflection, sharing, and question-asking forum, as well as interactive and physical activities, created a memorable platform that supports retention.
The researchers used an immediate pre-, immediate post-, and a one-year delayed post-questionnaire to test for changes in participants' attitudes toward coyotes and risk perceptions. They defined risk perceptions as fear of, control over, and the likelihood of coming into contact with coyotes.
In fall 2013, Cape Breton Highlands National Park advertised the program on the local radio station, through posters around town, and through social media. Park rangers conducted the program 20 times over 5 weeks. In that time, 150 participants completed the program, with an average class size between 6 and 10 people. Attendees represented the general gender and age demographics of the area, with 66% of the participants being female and the age range being between 18 and 65 years old.
The researchers found that overall, the Sharing Space: Living with Coyotes program created a significant positive effect on people's attitudes toward coyotes, decreasing their fear of coyotes as well as the sense of the likelihood of coming into contact with coyotes. If they were to potentially come into contact with a coyote, the participants had a significant increase in their sense of control over that interaction. Initial data analysis suggests that, one year later, those changes remained. Despite the statistically significant changes in these four outcomes, the mean differences showed only a small change in response from one concept to the next (such as, for example, from slightly agree to moderately agree) between pre- and post-test.
The Bottom Line
<p>Wildlife education often targets issues related to human–wildlife conflicts, with the intention of affecting people's attitudes and behaviors toward wildlife. Yet, those educational programs are minimally effective when designed based on an information-transmission model. Using experiential education approaches can significantly enhance participants' attitudes, values, knowledge, concerns, and potentially even their behaviors toward wildlife. In particular, designing interventions and outcomes that focus on an audience's specific needs can increase positive attitudes and decrease fear toward species that residents consider potentially harmful. Targeted experiential education provides useful tools and tangible takeaways for participants; such tools can be effective for a range of age groups to create engaging, positive, and lasting wildlife–human-related learning opportunities.</p>