Using Narratives to Document Environmental Identities and Connection to Nature : A Case Study of Aquarium Staff and Volunteers Public Deposited

http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/concern/graduate_thesis_or_dissertations/td96k510m

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  • Zoos and aquariums are among the best informal education avenues for individuals to further develop conservation beliefs and values. Research documented the presence of conservation messages at aquariums, that visitors expect such messages, and staff and volunteers at conservation organizations increase their conservation-related knowledge and behaviors. This research often focuses on the evaluation of what visitors gain from an experience instead of the production of knowledge and messages within an organization or for a learner. Further, little connection has been made between the life experiences of staff and volunteers prior to their time in a conservation-related facility and their experiences during their time working in such a facility in terms of how conservation and environmental ideas are integrated into an environmental identity. Understanding how aquarium volunteers and staff form environmental identities over their lifetime, including time spent in free-choice learning settings, is interesting not only for understanding and supporting their work but also for modeling the same processes with visitors. My objective for this research was to understand in what ways working in an environmentally themed organization does or does not shape a person's environmental identity. Staff and volunteers (n=96) completed Clayton's (2003) Environmental Identity Scale as well as Nisbet, et al.'s (2009) Nature Relatedness scale, which were used to measure an individual's environmental identity and connection to nature. A subset of staff and volunteers later completed Personal Meaning Maps (PMM; n=36) to share their significant, nature-based life and work experiences. Survey and PMM results were used to select another subset of participants to share nature-based experiences stories vis-à-vis narrative interviews (n=10). Narratives produced by participants elicited beliefs, values, knowledge, and realizations about nature and the environment. Results show that staff and volunteers from the Oregon Coast Aquarium who participated in this research had moderate-high to high environmental identities and felt a strong connection to nature, which were developed through childhood experiences in nature and over their lifetime through free-choice learning. Outdoor activities, travel, animals, and education (both their own education as well as the act of educating others) emerged as significant environmental-based life experiences. Nature-based experiences such as these lead to beliefs and values about nature, including nature being pristine, seeing animals in the wild, passing [nature] experiences on to others, introducing people to a place [natural area], and teaching people to protect what they love. Future research should focus on how environmental-based narratives, beliefs, values, and knowledge are developed and shared through professional development experiences, incorporated into zoo and aquarium exhibits, and ultimately how visitors make meaning from such stories and exhibits.
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