Most of what we learn about the environment occurs outside of the classroom. Nonformal learning centers like aquariums, parks and zoos are especially important to promote free-choice learning about climate change and other environmental issues and inspire visitors to apply this new knowledge into their everyday lives. Some nonformal learning centers follow up with past visitors regarding their experience, with the goal of reinforcing what visitors learned. Post-visit action resources (PVARs) can encourage pro-environmental attitudinal and behavioral shifts. This study investigated the impact of PVARS on visitors to an environmental learning center. Researchers also measured the degree to which PVARs reinforced meaningful learning, inspired people to apply learning to their daily lives, and encouraged people to seek out new learning opportunities.
Free-choice learning is a form of environmental education (EE) with the potential to enhance people's environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. Free-choice learning occurs when people guide and direct their own learning. Understanding how learning evolves after visiting a free-choice learning center is important because meaningful learning could make adopting environmentally sustainable behaviors easier for visitors. Meaningful learning is the type of learning required for rich comprehension, problem solving, and application, all of which can facilitate behavior change. While extent and breadth of learning indicate rote learning (memorization through repetition), depth and mastery indicate meaningful learning.
This study was conducted at the Assiniboine Park Zoo's Leatherdale International Polar Bear Conservation Centre (LIPBCC) in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The LIPBCC's exhibits share information with visitors about climate change, conservation, and sustainable practices. To collect data, the researchers stood outside the LIPBCC and asked visitors if they wanted to be a part of the study. They recruited 372 participants, out of which 86% were between 18 and 54 years old. The researchers collected data two ways: 1) a questionnaire about sustainable behaviors and 2) personal meaning maps. All 372 participants completed an initial survey after visiting the LIPBCC and received a second survey in the mail 8 weeks later. A subset of 79 participants elected to complete a personal meaning map (PMM) and interview before visiting the LIPBCC, and 70 of these participants completed a follow-up personal meaning map and interview 8 weeks later. PMMs began with a prompt phrase “climate change and sustainability,” and participants were asked to write or draw anything they associated with this phrase. Participants explained their maps during the interviews. The PMMs were used by the researchers to measure changes in extent, breadth, depth, and mastery of learning. The researchers assigned participants to either a control or intervention group. The intervention group received PVARs for 8 weeks following their visit. PVARs consisted of climate change fact sheets and weekly emails about easy and practical ways to be more sustainable. The control group did not receive any type of follow-up. Researchers analyzed the data using statistics and for themes among the PMM interviews.
Overall, this study provided evidence that PVARs can reinforce and expand free-choice learning after a visit to a nonformal learning center. PMM results indicated that participants who received PVARs showed significantly greater mastery and depth of learning (meaningful learning) than those who did not receive PVARs.
Participants who received PVARs felt they had increased and reinforced their knowledge about climate change and that they were more aware of this and other conservation issues. Participants who did not receive PVARs reported that they did not learn much about climate change and conservation after their visit to the LIPBCC because they did not have any further exposure to learning materials or opportunities. Intervention group participants who did receive PVARs reported that they had learned only a little after their visit because they already knew and understood most of the learning materials they received. Yet, survey and PMM results showed that PVARs enhanced participants' confidence in deciphering how to translate learning into sustainable actions and increased their feelings of self-efficacy, of being capable of solving sustainability issues in their everyday lives.
The self-reported data collected from the surveys had some limitations because a universal definition of “learning” does not exist. Participants might have considered rote learning more than meaningful learning when assessing their own learning. The results of the study may vary in a different context, such as another zoo or aquarium with different programming.
The authors recommend increasing the use PVARs, though it is important to adjust the type of PVAR to best fit the local population and context. They suggested that practitioners explore using social media as a tool to distribute PVARs. Social media is aligned with free-choice learning and has the potential to be very far-reaching. They also suggested that PVAR materials be more challenging, especially since participants who received PVARs in this study indicated that they already knew most of the information they received. To generate the best learning outcomes, the researchers recommended that practitioners make PVARs directly relevant to people's lives by tailoring environmental messages to local contexts and providing easily adoptable sustainable actions.
The Bottom Line
<p>Nonformal environmental learning centers can facilitate free choice learning, and post-visit action resources (PVARs) can help visitors apply what they learned to act in a more environmentally friendly way. This study explored whether PVARs, such as fact sheets and suggestions for green living, could effectively enhance people's environmental knowledge, attitudes, and ability to take pro-environmental behaviors after they visited Assiniboine Park Zoo's Leatherdale International Polar Bear Conservation Centre (LIPBCC) in Winnipeg, Canada. Results indicated that PVARs expand awareness, enhance learning, inspire continued learning, and build confidence for translating learning into action. The authors recommend that for the best learning outcomes, PVARs should be tailored to the population and context, as well as be challenging, relevant to the recipients, and provide easily adoptable behaviors.</p>