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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
from a large-scale evaluation, using surveys and focus groups, found that participation in Seafood Watch was correlated with changes not only in the purchasing patterns of visitors but also in the selling practices of seafood restaurants across the country (Quadra Planning Consultants, Ltd., 2004). Although linking environmental knowledge to behavior has often proven elusive, the Seafood Watch evaluation found evidence that increased knowledge strengthened pro-environmental attitudes and behavior.
Several studies indicate that an individual’s prior interest and involvement in conservation may serve as a better predictor of their responses and actions than typical demographic variables, such as age, gender, ethnicity, or education. For example, visitors with high interest in conservation stopped at more of the exhibits in a conservation-themed aquarium exhibition(Yalowitz, 2004; Hayward, 1997), and zoo visitors’ emotional responses to animals were more closely associated with emotional or personality variables (Myers, Saunders, and Birjulin, 2004) than demographic variables.
A common assumption in the field is that affective responses, such as caring for individual animals, will provide a basis for future behavior change. Carol Saunders at the Brookfield Zoo is developing the notion of “conservation psychology” to describe an emerging field that studies how humans behave toward nature, in particular how they come to value and care for it (Saunders, 2003). For example, a detailed study of zoo visitors’ self-reported emotional responses showed that certain emotions, including love, sense of connection, and amusement, related powerfully to their interest in the animals’ subjective feelings and to their desires to preserve the animals. Such emotions tended to be selectively felt, evoked by some types of animals more than by others. At the same time, the emotions of wonder and respect were also correlated with a desire to save the animal concerned, and these were “equal opportunity” emotions that were experienced at high levels by visitors watching a range of types of animals (Myers et al., 2004). Interestingly, emotions related to love and caring were elicited more frequently by active animals than by passive ones, and a visitor’s sense of connection to an animal was particularly enhanced if the person perceived the animal to be attending to them or to other people.
Several evaluation studies suggest that a range of designed settings for science learning afford learners opportunities to experience this kind of wonder and respect toward the natural world. For example:
“I learned all about plants—where they come from and how they live—so that makes me respect them [plants] more” (male, age 50; translated from Spanish) (Jones, 2005, p. 9).
“[I think the main purpose of this Africa Savanna exhibit is …] to make people aware of the problems regarding the Savanna; it helps personalize it so if you hear about problems regarding the Savanna one is more likely to help” (Meluch, 2006, pp. 16-21).