Improved Conservation Knowledge after a Park Visit

Burnett, E., Sills, E., Peterson, N., & DePerno, C. (2016). Impacts of the conservation education program in Serra Malagueta Natural Park, Cape Verde. Environmental Education Research, 22, 538 - 550.

Partners within the international protected areas network increasingly offer conservation education programs. However, few studies have evaluated the impact of those programs on participants' pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors, especially in the developing world. In this study, researchers evaluated the conservation education program offered at Serra Malagueta Natural Park (SMNP) in Cape Verde, a small developing-state island in Africa's Sahel Region. The researchers studied the program's impact on student participants' environmental knowledge, opinions about the park and biodiversity conservation, and self-reported behaviors. They compared the results with those of a similar group of students who did not participate in a park visit.

The park-visit group included 392 students in grades 5 through 12 from 10 schools who visited SMNP between March and July 2011. Students in these groups completed a questionnaire in the park immediately before their visit and in their classrooms one week after the visit. Of those 392 students, 54 responded only to the pre-visit survey. Over the same time and using the same questionnaire, the researchers collected data from students in similar schools and grades who did not visit the park or participate in the conservation education program; this sample included 296 students from seven schools. Researchers also asked students in the non-park-visit comparison group to complete the questionnaire twice; however, 170 students in this group completed the questionnaire only once. Additionally, the researchers collected questionnaire data from 18 teachers, 12 of whom were with the park-visit group and six with the comparison group. The teacher questionnaire asked whether the teacher had previously visited the park with students and whether s/he had recently taught park-related material in the classroom. The questionnaire also asked teachers to indicate their gender and level of educational attainment.

Researchers designed the student questionnaire to account for recommendations that previous studies had made. The questionnaire included four sections, assessing: (1) sociodemographic background; (2) biodiversity conservation knowledge (multiple-choice and open-ended questions on plant and animal diversity); (3) opinions on parks and conservation (Likert scale-type questions); and (4) self-reported pro-environmental behaviors, focusing on actions mentioned by park educators (e.g., frequency of littering).

The researchers used a method called Differences-in- Differences (DID) to compare the pre-visit and post-visit responses of the park-visit group. They also compared the post-visit responses of the park-visit group with the no-visit comparison group. The researchers considered characteristics of the students such as gender, whether they were rural or urban residents, their grade level, and the type of school they attended (for example, public or private). They found that, on these characteristics, the two groups were similar in all aspects, except that the park-visit group included a higher percentage of rural residents.

Of the findings related to conservation knowledge and opinions, the primary finding related to biodiversity conservation knowledge: The park-visit group demonstrated a statistically significant increase of 9.5% in their biodiversity-conservation knowledge when comparing their pre-visit and post-visit scores. Students in higher grades showed greater knowledge gains than those in lower grades. The researchers posited that these increases might indicate that the SMNP program is more appropriate for older students, or that younger students in Cape Verde may have poorer test-taking skills. They argued that the latter explanation is more plausible, as Cape Verde students rarely encounter multiple-choice tests. The researchers found no differences in program impact based on student gender or type of school attended (public/private).

Biodiversity conservation knowledge (measured at post-visit) was also significantly higher in the park-visit group versus the comparison group. Park-visit students also demonstrated higher initial (pre-test) knowledge than the comparison group. The researchers mostly attributed this difference to preparatory learning about the park before their visit. Indeed, data from the teacher questionnaires revealed that nine of the 12 park-visit teachers reported teaching their students about the park before the visit, whereas only two of the six no-visit teachers had done so. Further, six of the park-visit teachers previously had taken their students to the park, compared with one teacher in the comparison group. To account for the in-class preparatory activities, the authors recommend that future studies administer the pre-test survey before the teacher initiates field-trip discussions.

The study found no significant differences in students' opinions on parks and conservation, both when comparing the pre- and post-visit responses of the park-visit group and also when comparing the post-visit responses of the park-visit group with those of the no-visit group. One possible explanation is that pro-environmental opinions were initially high for both groups; therefore, there was little opportunity for improvement based on the park program. Finally, self-reported behavior did not change pre- or post-visit for the park-visit group, and it was not significantly different between the park-visit and comparison groups. This finding is consistent with the SMNP's educational goals, which purposefully focus on conveying knowledge about biodiversity and not on connecting that knowledge to personal behaviors.

The Bottom Line

<p>Opportunities exist to increase young people's biodiversity and conservation knowledge through direct, place-based experiences and engaging, firsthand educational programs, such as those afforded through visits to nearby parks. Visiting a national park can positively influence students' local environmental knowledge, particularly when coupled with pre-visit preparation in the classroom. Male and female students, as well as students from public and private schools, can benefit equally from such experiences. However, after such a visit, the students may not engage in any more, or any different, environmentally related behaviors, particularly if the program does not specifically emphasize those types of behaviors. If educators desire for a program to influence environmental behavior-related outcomes, then they must specifically design the program to do so.</p>