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Running head: ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 1

Assessing the Informal Science Learner: How Environmental Educators Can Understand

What Learners Have Gained from Park and Nature Center Programs

Emily Martin

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

IT 590

Fall 2013
ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 2

Abstract

This paper explores the use of assessment in informal science settings, such as environmental

education programs offered at parks and nature centers. It discusses the issues faced by

environmental educators who often teach a diverse and self-selected group of learners, and asks

whether certain assessment methods tend to work better in informal learning environments. This

paper examines literature on assessment in environmental education and offers a plan for further

research to determine the most reliable, effective, and appropriate measures of tracking learning

gains in informal science settings.

Table of Contents
ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 3

Introduction …………………………………………………………………………. 4

Background and Significance ………………………………………………. 4-5

Statement of Problem ……………………………………………………….. 5

Literature Review …………………………………………………………… 5-13

Study Rationale …………………………………………………………….. 14

Statement of Research Question …………………………………………… 14

Method ……………………………………………………………………………... 15

Participants …………………………………………………………………. 15

Instruments …………………………………………………………………. 16

Evaluation Design Method …………………………………………………. 17

Procedure …………………………………………………………………… 17-19

Data Analysis Plan …………………………………………………….……………. 19-20

Appendix A: Interview Questions ………………………………….………….……. 21-22

Appendix B: Focus Group Results ………………………………….…….………… 23-27

Introduction
ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 4

Background and Significance

The Current State of Affairs (CSA)

Since the 1970’s, the environmental education movement has shifted its focus from alarm

sounding to relationship building. Many state and national parks and nature centers such as those

run by the Audubon Society aim to foster a sense of love and respect between visitors and the

great outdoors. But with these visitors often playing the role of one-time learners, attending a

weekend program while on vacation or during leisure time, park and nature center educators

have a difficult time assessing the effectiveness of their programs (See Appendix B).

The ultimate goal of most environmental education programming is a change in behavior,

so it can be extremely difficult to track the progress of these learners overtime. Even short-term

learning gains are hard to track because the casual setting does not lend itself to traditional forms

of assessment, such as written exams. If visitors feel criticized or bored, they may decide to leave

or, worse yet for environmental educators, they may decide to stop attending park and nature

center programs altogether. Because of the nature of informal science learning, educators often

rely on non-invasive verbal questioning or post-program surveys to gather learner assessment

data. A standard and reliable method of assessment is not widely known or available to

environmental educators.

The Desired State of Affairs (DSA)

The desired state of affairs for assessment in environmental education would involve

having a reliable means of tracking learning gains and/or behavior changes in learners who

attend park or nature center programs. Further, it would be desirable to find a method of

assessment that could be reconstructed and shared across many environmental education

programs.
ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 5

The Needs Gap

The needs gap exists where informal science educators and organizations have the desire

to see environmental education programming change learner behavior or produce certain

cognitive outcomes, but the standard for doing this is not clear. If these educators had a reliable

and standard way to assess learning, not only would they be able to see which programs were

meeting or missing instructional goals, they might also have stronger data to back up grant

applications and other sources of funding. Without a clear form of assessment, however,

environmental educators are left to rely on post-program surveys and anecdotal information to

support their reason for existing.

Statement of the Problem

The purpose of this study is to identify current means of assessing learners in informal

science settings, determine which methods of assessment have been successful, and decide if

these methods could be replicated and used in consistently in environmental education.

Literature Review

Phillip Bell (2009) and others on the National Research Council’s Committee on

Learning Science in Informal Environments said some of environmental educators have decided

to, “eschew formalized outcomes altogether and to embrace learner-defined outcomes instead”

(p. 3). But Bell et al. proposed an alternative to choosing purely academic or subjective goals for

informal science learning.

The authors suggested six “strands” of science learning that could guide educators and

designers when thinking about learning goals, which say that learners should:
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“Strand 1: Experience excitement, interest, and motivation to learn about phenomena in

the natural and physical world.

Strand 2: Come to generate, understand, remember, and use concepts, explanations,

arguments, models, and facts related to science.

Strand 3: Manipulate, test, explore, predict, question, observe, and make sense of the

natural and physical world.

Strand 4: Reflect on science as a way of knowing; on processes, concepts, and

institutions of science; and on their own process of learning about phenomena.

Strand 5: Participate in scientific activities and learning practices with others, using

scientific language and tools.

Strand 6: Think about themselves as science learners and develop an identity as someone

who knows about, uses, and sometimes contributes to science” (p. 4).

How can educators measure the realization of these strands? Bell et al. (2009) said it

probably won’t be through multiple choice tests, or other methods that are “disruptive” to the

often one-time leisure experience offered by informal science settings (p. 56). They suggested

measuring each strand differently. For instance, Strand 1 could rely on self-reporting, such as

asking the target audience to describe their level of interest before and after attending the science

program. Or Strand 1 might be measured by analyzing facial expressions, monitoring body

responses such as posture, or collecting verbal feedback from learners. But Bell et al. admit that

none of these methods are fool proof and each, especially self-reporting, has great potential for

bias.
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The authors (2009) suggested that Strand 2 might be best-suited for “traditional” forms of

assessment, such as recording learners’ answers to factual recall questions, but they warn against

these methods saying they may lead to learners feeling frustrated or incompetent, thus wanting to

avoid the setting in the future. Instead, Bell et al. suggested that Strand 2 might be measured by

using cognitive or meaning mapping as a program activity that would let learners show the

various facts and concepts they learned in relation to the topic being taught. This activity could

provide a record of learning without being obtrusive, the authors said. They also said Strand 2

could be assessed through self-reporting, as with Strand 1, as well as by analyzing learner’s

conversations and conducting focus groups with members of the target audience.

The authors (2009) further explained assessment possibilities for each of the other

strands, many of them focusing on observing learners and recording their immediate reactions

and behaviors, or setting up long-term studies with groups that represent the target audience. Bell

et al. concluded by saying informal science environments are known to be flexible and open to

the needs of the community. However, just because they are places of recreation, the authors said

informal science environments should still have standards for learning outcomes. The strands of

science learning offered by Bell et al. were meant to steer the conversation away from

“traditional” forms of assessment used in K-12 settings and toward a new way of documenting

learning in the diverse world of informal science education. The authors said more work needs to

be done in order to build these standards.

Alida Kossack and Franz X. Bogner (2012) asked in their study how a one-time

environmental education program could bring about long-term learning in students. More

specifically, the authors asked how educators could track an individual’s “connectedness to

nature,” a phenomenon which they said leads to positive conservation behaviors (p. 180). Their
ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 8

answer was something called the “Inclusion of Nature in Self” (INS) scale, designed by P.W.

Shultz in 2001.

According to the authors (2012), the INS scale allows learners to self-report how close

they feel to nature before and after attending an environmental education program. The scale

shows a series of two circles, one that says “self” and one that says “nature” (p.181). Learners

choose one of seven sets of these circles, from the first two that do not overlap to the last two

that overlap completely. The set is divided into three groups: low, medium, and high

connectedness level. Learners self-report by selecting a set before attending an environmental

education program, immediately after, and again seven weeks after the program.

Kossack and Bogner (2012) conducted a study with 123 sixth-grade students in Germany

(and 113 additional sixth-grade students from the same school in a control group). The students

attended a one-day science program outdoors about the changing of forest ecosystems over time.

They found that individuals who reported a low-level of connectedness in before attending a

program reported higher levels of connectedness after a program if it was highly experience-

based, such as the use of games and social activities. But individuals who reported a low-level of

connectedness pre-program were more likely to report a low-level of connectedness post-

program if the lesson focused on building cognitive skills, such as memorization of terms.

However, individuals who reported medium or high-levels of connectedness before attending a

program were more likely to report high-levels of connectedness after attending a program.

Overall, the intervention group reported more positive changes in connectedness both

immediately after and seven weeks after attending the program, whereas the control group

reported no significant changes.


ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 9

Based on their findings, Kossack and Bogner (2012) suggested that the INS scale should

be used by environmental educators to get a quick pre-test of learners’ reported connectedness to

nature in order to customize programming to learners needs (i.e. providing more experience-

based activities for those who report low-level connectedness). The authors suggested that by

using the INS scale before a program, educators could attempt to control learners’ feelings of

connectedness to nature after the program. They admitted, however, that this method would be

most suited for school groups coming to a park or nature center for a field trip, or for

environmental educators who were visiting a classroom.

Julie Ernsta and Stefan Theimer (2011) also discussed individuals’ perceived increased

connectedness to nature as a measure of success environmental education. Through an

exploratory quantitative study that looked at the effects seven environmental education programs

had on 385 youth participants, they determined an individual’s feelings of connectedness to

nature is a hard thing to attribute to one program.

The authors (2011) said that “connectedness to nature” is not something researchers have

come up with; rather, this theme is adopted by many organizations as a guiding environmental

education principle. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, names “Connecting People

with Nature” as one of its six top priorities (p. 578). Ernsta and Theimer sampled seven USFWS

environmental education programs that included “connecting children to nature” as an outcome,

with 3rd-6th graders from the region as participants and a control group from each grade level of

the same elementary schools. They pre- and post-tested participants in these programs using two

instruments for construct validity: Cheng’s Children’s Connection to Nature Index, which asked

participants to rate their level of agreement on a scale of 1 to 5 (strongly agree – strongly

disagree) regarding 16 statements, such as “Humans are a part of the natural environment” (p.
ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 10

588); and Mayer and Frantz’s Nature Connectedness Inventory, which asked 11 questions about

participants’ feelings of belonging to the natural world. Out of the seven programs evaluated,

participants in only two programs showed an increased connectedness to nature.

Ernsta and Theimer (2011) concluded that this outcome could have occurred for a

number of reasons: participants could have hit a “ceiling” as far as how connected they feel to

nature, the program content was varied and each could have affected learners differently, or

participants feelings of connectedness could have been more cognitive or emotional in nature,

meaning they could have felt connected in a way the study’s scales did not measure (p. 595).

In Developing and Implementing Programs to Transform Behaviors, Erin Redman (2013)

described a different outcome that environmental educators want to measure: how likely learners

are to behave “sustainably” after attending a program, such as wasting fewer household

resources and eating differently (p. 1). Redman’s study involved presenting a summer program

on food and waste habits to a small group of learners (6 initially, 3 long-term) and then tracking

their behavior changes over a year’s time. Redman used a pre- and post-survey, which combined

open-ended and Likert-scale questions, to determine the types of foods participants ate (e.g. –

meat, organic or bagged vegetables), where they shopped (e.g. farmers’ markets, grocery stores),

and what kinds of household items they reused, recycled, or threw in the trash. Redman said the

questions were separated by topic (food or waste) and also by four knowledge domains:

declarative, procedural, effectiveness, and social. Her study measured changes in these domains

along with behavioral changes reported over a year. Long-term behavioral changes were

measured by qualitative methods including journals and interviews (with participants as well as

interviews participants conducted with members of their own households).


ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 11

Redman (2013) found through comparing pre- and post-survey results that the biggest

knowledge change was in the food declarative knowledge domain, but the biggest change overall

was in waste behavior. Redman says the reason for this positive trend could be that social norms

regarding waste, such as knowing how and why to recycle, are more easily changed, whereas

food, such as changing from a meat to vegetable diet, could be a more difficult behavior to

change socially, with limited vegetarian or local food options depending on where a person lives.

Cultural values also play a large role in food choices, including meat consumption.

Redman (2013) concluded by saying that environmental behavior change is connected to

social context. Each participant in the year-long study revealed through that they were more

likely to stick to a sustainable change, such as using cloth napkins instead of disposables, if the

people around them took part in the change as well. Redman said tracking these kinds of long-

term behavior changes was possible through the use of qualitative methods such as journaling,

interviewing, and other techniques that allowed participants to give open-ended answers and

relate the questions specifically to their lives. But Redman admits that the study should be

conducted again with a larger sample to get a more diverse pool of participants and a more

realistic look at behavior change across demographics.

Finally, Monzack and Petersen (2011) studied the effectiveness and assessment methods

involved in informal science learning. They presented a movement-based activity about human

heart, which asked participants to walk along a floor map depicting the chambers and vessels of

a cardiovascular system as if they were the blood pumping through the system. The researchers

welcomed participation from audience members in two different types of settings: a place where

people expected to learn science (a science fair) and a place where people did not necessarily

expect to learn science (a charity running event and the entrance to a Wisconsin State Fair).
ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 12

Through a card sorting and labeling assessment activity, Monzack and Peterson sought to

determine if informal science learning could produce similar gains in expected places, where

learners are self-selected, as in unexpected places, where learners did not necessarily have the

inherent desire to learn about science.

The authors’ (2011) results suggested that regardless if people were seeking out these

experiences, individuals could learn science in informal settings and they could be assessed

through activities. At each event – in the expected setting and in both of the unexpected settings

– participants showed significant increases in post-test scores, which measured factual recall of

terminology as well as conceptual knowledge of the heart’s function within the human body. By

starting and ending the movement-based cardiovascular activity with card sorting and labeling

activities that dealt with the human heart, not only were participants learning more about the

subject, they were also being assessed on their cognitive understanding of how the heart

functions.

Study Rationale

As the literature suggests, informal science learning is difficult to measure. Sometimes

that difficulty stems from affective learning outcomes being unclear, as Ernsta and Theimer

(2011) suggested with the “connectedness” theme that guide many environmental organizations

but have differing meanings for each. When behavior change is the desired outcome, long-term

studies such as Erin Redman’s (2013) may be the best answer. Bell (2009) and the National

Research Council’s Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments suggested, too,

that assessment can be done with groups of informal science learners rather than through every

program offered.
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When learning outcomes are cognitive in nature, planned activities like card sorting may

be an effective and non-invasive form of assessment learners in an informal environment, as

suggested by Monzack and Petersen (2011). Literature suggests that educators may not need to

rely on “traditional” forms of assessment, such as paper exams, to assess learners in these

settings. Educators may find assessing members of the target audience through planned research

studies or using activities such as card sorting as pre- and post-assessments may be the less-

intrusive forms of assessment that work well in parks and nature center programs, measuring

learning gains effectively without disrupting the casual atmosphere.

Statement of Research Question

This research aims to answer the following question: What reliable and repeatable

assessment tools could be used in parks and nature centers across the United States?

Method

Participants

Participants for this study will be full- or part-time environmental educators working for

state or national parks or nature centers in the United States. Income and gender are not

important for this study, but ideal participants will have used assessment tools to track learning

gains in the past twelve months. They will be recruited through the following online

communities for environmental educators: the North American Association of Environmental

Educators discussion board and listserv (http://www.naaee.net/), the National Association of

Interpreters e-news and listserv (http://www.interpnet.com/), and the LinkedIn Conservation &
ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 14

Environmental Education Resource Network (http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Conservation-

Environmental-Education-Resource-Network-2181156).

The recruitment message will include a description of the study along with a call for

educators to improve assessment efforts in their field by sharing methods that have worked for

them. The message will also explain that chosen participants who complete the entire process of

screening and interviewing (2 hour time commitment) will receive a $50 gift certificate to Acorn

Naturalists online shop. Participants will be environmental educators at state or national parks, or

nature centers, who use assessment methods to track learning gains. The reason for tracking

these gains may vary by location. Educators who rely on learning data to fund their organization

may be more ideal participants in this study because they have likely tried different forms of

assessment in order to report accurate data to funders.

Instruments

An online survey will be used to screen initial volunteers found through the online

communities mentioned above. Participants who answer that they have worked in informal

science settings (parks and nature centers) and have used assessment methods to track learning

gains in the past 12 months will be invited to take part in an interview.

The interview is the first phase of this study. It is designed to gather information about

how informal science educators use assessment and to select sites for further program evaluation,

as described later in this paper. In order for participants to feel more comfortable, and in hopes of

capturing richer feedback, the interviews will be conducted in a group setting. Participants will

join the interviewer in a web conferencing room on a selected day and time. Several meeting

options will be outlined depending on availability, which will be determined through the
ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 15

invitation email and subsequent messages. The interviewer will moderate the discussion and will

describe to participants how to use the microphone and text features in the web conferencing

platform. During the interview, participants will be asked most questions as a group while

everyone offers individual answers, but some questions will be asked anonymously via web-

polling options (See Appendix A).

The next phase of this study will evaluate the effectiveness of specific assessment

methods mentioned in the interview session. Participants will be contacted from the interview

group who answered “yes” to “Are you interested in taking part in further research studies

regarding how your organization uses assessment?” Two sites will be selected for this part of the

study. As described further in the sections to follow, learner assessment and satisfaction data will

be evaluated alongside program objectives to determine which methods were most successful in

producing learning gains as well as in remaining non-invasive for the vacationing learner.

Evaluation Design Method

As discussed in Chapter 4 of Wholey’s (2010) Handbook of Practical Program

Evaluation, small-sample studies can be used to estimate program effectiveness and test

performance measures that will be used in evaluation. In this study, the small sample will involve

learner satisfaction and assessment data from two environmental education sites that participated

in the interview session described in the section above.

The purpose of the small-sample study will be to estimate program effectiveness in terms

of assessment methods used at the site and reported learner/visitor satisfaction and learning

gains. Not only is this a low-cost way to produce findings about the effectiveness of assessment
ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 16

methods used in environmental education, a small-sample study would provide insight to the

viability of conducting larger scale evaluations in the future.

Procedure

Selected participants will offer complete learner satisfaction surveys, assessment data,

and lesson plans from each informal science lesson they present. Researchers will then sample

from within these data sets. Learner/visitor assessment data (quizzes, audience polling results,

etc.) will first be grouped with satisfaction surveys and lesson plans from corresponding

educational events. Then each set will be assigned a number. The data sets will be randomly

selected across each organization’s environmental education offerings for analysis.

Access to the organization’s detailed lesson plans will help determine if learning

objectives are being met and if the assessment methods are designed to accurately measure the

objectives. Satisfaction surveys, which may need to be modified for this study to include

questions about assessment, will illustrate if the learners’ attitudes about being assessed are

positive, negative, or neutral.

At least 25 sets of data will be collected at each site over a 3-week period. The study will

last approximately 4 months, from October 1, 2014 – February 1, 2015, to allow time for data

collection, analysis, and reporting. The timeline is listed below in Figure 1:

Figure 1: Timeline

Activity Time to complete


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Select site for small-sample study and clarify goals 2 weeks

Talk with site educators and other key personnel to determine 2 days

protocol and timeline for sharing data

Collect all educational programming information from site, 3 weeks

including learner/visitor demographic information, current

lesson plans, assessment methods used for each plan

Code corresponding assessment data, satisfaction surveys, and 2 weeks

lesson plans as they come in and store in folders. Assign

number ID to each data set.


Select data to evaluate by using random number generator. 2 days

Data sets for each site will be randomly selected by assigned

numbers.
Analyze data 2 months
Follow up with site educators by phone each month and in Monthly

person at end of data collection and evaluation.

Write final report, edit drafts, and share with stakeholders. 3 weeks
The dates were chosen around off-seasons for many parks and nature centers (after Labor

Day). By conducting the study after summer, it is more likely that educators will have the time to

share data and communicate with evaluators throughout the process.

Data Analysis Plan

The qualitative data collected from the small-sample study will be analyzed by first

coding the assessment data, visitor satisfaction survey results, and lesson plan by educational
ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 18

event. For example, for an event on bird migration, each of those three sets of data will be given

a numeric ID and organized together as one unit. Once data has been collected for each of the

site’s educational events, a random number generator will be used to choose samples from the

entire selection.

Next, the lesson plans for each educational event sampled will be compared to

assessment data to determine if desired learning outcomes were met. Once learning outcomes are

identified and marked as either “met” or “unmet,” further analysis will attempt to find out why.

For instance, objective statements and assessment questions (if applicable) will be analyzed for

clarity and consistency. Trends will be identified in this process regarding the quality of objective

statements (measurability), as well as in the number of met and unmet objectives in each lesson

across all audiences.

Then visitor satisfaction data will be compared to learning data to notice any trends

involving the feelings learners have about the program and their assessment results. Open-ended

comments regarding assessment methods will also be analyzed to determine the frequency and

type of comments (positive, negative, or neutral). Observations will be compared with data from

other educational events to determine differences in assessment strategies, learning outcomes,

and reported visitor satisfaction.

If necessary, suggestions for improving assessment methods will be offered to educators

at each site. If certain methods have proven successful in their work, they will be collected and

shared with the focus group who previously shared their experiences with assessment in

environmental education (See Appendix B). The focus group’s next set of observations and

questions will further define an approach to assessment that may be more widely accepted and

relied upon to measure learning in informal science settings.


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References

Ernsta, J., & Theimer S. (2011). Evaluating the effects of environmental education

programming on connectedness to nature. Environmental Education Research. 17(5),

577–598. doi:10.1080/13504622.2011.565119

Goodman, E., Kuniavsky, M., & Moed, A. (2012). Observing the user experience: A

practitioner’s guide to user research (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Elsevier.

Kossack, A. & Bogner, F. (2012). How does a one-day environmental education programme

support individual connectedness with nature? Journal of Biological Education, 46(3),

180-187. doi:10.1080/00219266.2011.634016

Monzack, E.L. & Petersen, G.M.Z. (2011). Using an informal cardiovascular system activity to

study the effectiveness of science education in unexpected places. Research in Science

Education, 41(4), 453–460. doi:10.1007/s11165-010-9174-5

National Research Council. (2009). Learning science in informal environments: people, places,

and pursuits. Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments. Philip Bell,

Bruce Lewenstein, Andrew W. Shouse, and Michael A. Feder, editors. Board on Science
ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 20

Education, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and

Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Redman, E. (2013). Advancing educational pedagogy for sustainability: Developing and

implementing programs to transform behaviors. International Journal of Environmental

& Science Education, 8(1), 1-34. Retrieved from http://www.ijese.com/V8N1.htm

Wholey, J. S., Hatry, H. P., & Newcomer, K. E. (2010). Handbook of practical program

evaluation (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Appendix A: Interview Questions

1. How frequently do you use these tools to assess what visitors have gained from your

programs? (poll)

Rate from 1-3: with 1 being not at all, 2 being occasionally, and 3 being regularly.

- Questionnaire/Survey

- Observation

- Journaling
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- Polling

- Verbal questioning

- Direct testing

2. Please list any assessment tool you use regularly that is not listed above.

3. Which methods do you think give you the best learning data? Why?

4. What does your organization hope to gain by using assessments?

5. Is there anything you would change about how your organization uses assessments?

(Anonymous polling question)

6. Can you think of a time when an assessment went well? What happened?

7. Can you think of a time when an assessment went poorly? What happened?

8. What do you think the “perfect” type of assessment would look like for environmental

education?

9. Would you like to add anything about assessment in environmental education that wasn’t

covered here today? (Can be anonymous if participants choose to use anon. feature in

chat)
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10. Are you interested in taking part in further research studies regarding how your

organization uses assessments?

Appendix B: Focus Group Results

Audience: Three environmental educators from the Alton, IL area - one male and two females

between the ages of 30-40 years old.

IT Product: Audience response systems (“clickers” and receivers)

Product Use: For audience polling, often used with PowerPoint presentations, presented to this

group as a means of assessing learners during informal science programs at parks and nature

centers.
ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 23

Participants for this focus group were chosen by approaching several educators at a water

conservation event in Alton, IL. People who appeared to by environmental educators (those

behind informational booths, or those planning programs) were asked if they would like to take

part in a study. If they said yes, the following screening questions were asked:

1. Are you currently employed as an environmental educator?


a. If yes: continue to next question.
b. If no: Have you been employed as an environmental educator in the past year?
i. If yes: continue to next question.
ii. If no: Thank you for answering my questions. This study is looking for

environmental educators who are either working or have worked in the

past year, but I do appreciate your time.


2. Do you assess what learners have gained from attending your programs?
a. If yes: continue to next question.
b. If no: Do you have the desire to test learning gains in your environmental

education programming?
i. If yes: continue to next question.
ii. If no: Thank you for answering my questions. This study is looking for

environmental educators who either assess or have the desire to assess

learning gains, but I do appreciate your time.


3. Do you have any experience with audience response polling hardware (“clickers”)?
a. No one said yes to this question. I asked everyone who got to this point if they

would be available to meet the following week for a brief focus group.

Four environmental educators agreed to participate in the study, but only three came to

the hour-long focus group on Monday, September 23, 2013 at Lewis and Clark Community

College. We started with introductions, a brief ice-breaking activity where everyone shared their

favorite teaching moment, and an explanation of audience response systems (with photo of

“clicker” device and use with PowerPoint). I then began asking these questions in order:
ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 24

1. Do you have a favorite type of assessment that you like to use after giving an

environmental education program? (All educators who agreed to participate said they

used assessment in their programs.)


2. What makes it your favorite?
3. Do you have any other favorite methods you would like to mention?
4. How do you feel about using audience polling system as assessment?
5. What would you think about assessing learners with the “clicker” tools I showed you

earlier?
6. Would you like to say anything else about “clickers” or audience response systems?
7. Would you like to say anything else about assessment tools in environmental

education?

I was surprised that even though educators were pre-screened to be users of assessment,

they each seemed reluctant to use anything other than anecdotal/verbal assessment and post-

program surveys, which do more to find out about the success of the program itself rather than

assess the knowledge of learners.

In question one, each participant stated they preferred an informal type of assessment,

such as having the audience raise hands to show what they believe is true. Participant One said it

was her favorite because it was not too much pressure for visitors and she didn’t want them to

leave her program if they did not know an answer. After she said this, the other educators echoed

her statement.

Participant Two mentioned handing out paper surveys at the end of his program, and that

he is moving toward online surveys for people who provide an email address. I asked him if he

could give me an example of survey questions and he said he has learners rate how interesting

the topic was, what other topics they would like to learn about, and what they felt they learned
ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 25

from the program. He said he matches what they feel they learned to what he wants to teach

them, but does not measure specific learning objectives.

After hearing statements about not wanting to turn visitors away with public assessment,

I thought about adding an element to my next question: How do you feel about using an

anonymous audience polling system as assessment? But I thought this insertion may be an

attempt to sway participants toward answering a certain way, so I left the question as is, without

the bold/italics section.

I asked this question directly to Participant Three who had not yet answered first. She

said she might be interested in using audience polling systems, but probably wouldn’t have the

budget to purchase the hardware. I asked if she would use it if the hardware was given to her and

she said maybe. At this point conversation in the focus group began to run dry. The other

participants also said they weren’t sure if they’d use it. Participant One said she wasn’t sure the

audience would know what to do with the hardware and that it might be more trouble than it was

worth trying to explain how to use it.

I tried again with the next question specifically about the clickers I had explained to them

earlier. Again, money seemed to be a concern, so I asked if we could think hypothetically about

the hardware being a gift to their organization. Participants answered largely with “maybe” or “I

would try it and see how it worked”, but Participant Two said he liked the idea of clickers being

integrated into PowerPoint presentations and could see it being easier to keep track of assessment

results than individual surveys, especially keeping an electronic record.

At the last question, Participant Two said he thinks assessment is hard to do at his work

because most visitors don’t want to fill out surveys. Other participants agreed that it is hard to get
ASSESSING THE INFORMAL SCIENCE LEARNER 26

a response from learners. Participant One said she wouldn’t want to push assessment so much

that learners no longer have fun or want to come to their programs. Participant Three said she

could watch visitors during activities or games and see if they understand the concepts she has

taught them.

Although this was a small group of individuals and their thoughts do not represent those

of all or most environmental educators, the responses in this focus group did bring to mind the

idea of cost in assessment, as well as the idea of technology being a “worry” rather than

something helpful. I had not considered that these educators might not want to explore

assessment methods that cost money. It does make sense that most nature centers and parks are

suffering budget cuts and cannot afford anything outside of administrative costs and salaries, and

sometimes not even that.

Another focus group may want to look at other forms of assessment that do not have to

be bought, such as using checklists or rubrics to judge learners’ projects or performances.

Looking specifically at assessments that are cost-free and not “public” might help the next focus

group move past those concerns and share more about their feelings on how to test learning

gains.

Also, perhaps another focus group could look at free technology, like online assessment

software, while yet another could look at assessments without the use of hardware or software. I

assumed people would be more open to using tools for assessment, such as clickers, but this

group did not appear to be that interested. I’m not sure if it was the idea of technology, or just

this particular tool that inspired the comment about it being troublesome to have to teach learners
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how the tool during the program. Perhaps more focus groups or a survey could help shed light on

how environmental educators use technology in their programs.