Conservation Psychology Institute at Phipps a Success

by Melissa Harding

This past week, conservation, science, environmental, education, psychology and other professionals with broad public engagement opportunities came from around the country to Pittsburgh for an intensive Conservation Psychology Institute, jointly run by Antioch University New England and Phipps, and based out of the Science Education classroom in Phipps’ new Center for Sustainable Landscapes.

Learning directly from an internationally recognized team of faculty (see bios)  about relevant psychological theories and strategies for increasing environmental and human well-being, participants included professionals from the World Wildlife Fund, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Duke Botanic Gardens, the Student Conservation Association, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Penn State Broadcasting, and many more. The four-day institute consisted of two two-day sessions, each with a different focus.

The first session, Conservation Psychology in a Time of Wonder, focused on the importance of having a sense of wonder towards the natural world. Led primarily by Dr. Louise Chawla of the University of Colorado and Dr. Carol Saunders of Antioch University New England, this session focused on the power of using inspiration rather than fear to instill positive environmental attitudes in children. Molly Steinwald, Phipps’ Director of Science Education, Affiliate of the International League of Conservation Photographers and PhD candidate at Miami University, also talked about how images of wonder and natural beauty can be used to inspire an audience and aid in connecting them to nearby nature.

Participants learned about biophilic design, which uses parks, play spaces and buildings to help connect people to nature, and about the theory of “loose parts”, the idea that participatory learning experiences are more engaging when there are more objects in the environment to manipulate. Using Phipps nature play area, Discovery Garden and market play area as practical examples of how this can be accomplished, participants worked in break-out sessions to brainstorm ways to facilitate more participatory experiences both on site and off.

The second session, Conservation Psychology in a Time of Crisis, focused on the importance of communicating about issues of environmental crisis in a responsible way. Led primarily by Dr. P. Wesley Schultz of California State University, San Marcos, and Dr. Thomas Doherty, editor of EcoPsychology journal, the second session focused on theories of why people hold their environmental attitudes and how they can be changed. Molly Steinwald taught again about the power of imagery, showing that dramatic images of crisis can facilitate behavior change in audiences if properly utilized. Participants learned about inclusion theory, the theory of why and how people feel connected to or a part of nature, and how to use this as a metric to evaluate the effectiveness of education and awareness-based programs. They also had the opportunity to work with each other and benefit from the collective experience of the group to brainstorm about specific issues faced at some of the participating institutions.

The institute not only allowed conservation professionals from all parts of the field to come together and gain a better understanding of their peers, but also of how conservation psychology can be applied to all areas and professions. Whether a participant is a therapist or scientist, learning better ways to communicate complex issues regarding the environment is beneficial to everyone.

As an educator, the information I learned from this conference not only forced me to re-evaluate some of my theories on education, but reinforced my beliefs in the importance of using positive messages when teaching about crisis issues and of being an environmental “cheerleader” when working with children. I am still mulling over the sessions that I attended and look forward to applying the strategies I learned to increase the quality of our programs and our ability to accurately evaluate them.

If you are interested in learning more about the upcoming 2013 Conservation Psychology Institute in the New England area through AUNE or about faculty involved, visit either this most recent or previous institute webpages. AUNE will post additional information about the upcoming institute soon.

The above pictures were taken by Molly Steinwald, Amanda Joy and Eva Resnick-Day.

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