Shifting our Approach to Conservation Education


As an educational discipline, Conservation Biology is often described as “the description, explanation, appreciation, protection, and perpetuation of biological diversity”.  While this addresses the scientific aspects, it ignores the role that people have in the natural world.  In order to educate people on conservation, it is essential to look at how people interact with nature and view their role as a member of the biological community.  The first step in connecting people with nature is looking at how society educates people about conservation.

Conservation education can emerge from a broad range of environments, including traditional classroom settings, multimedia outlets, and cultural settings.  The use of multimedia, including television programming and popular films, has become a popular tool to engage people in the natural environment, but can often suffer from sensational imagery that provides incorrect or idealized view of the world.  Documentaries attempt to ground individuals in the facts, but packaging of messages can be confusing by sometimes arguing for natural world as a key resource versus messages of a pristine environment that humans should protect from overuse and extraction.  These multimedia outlets do not approach connecting people to their role within nature, but instead create a type of spectatorship in which individuals often feel disconnected from the world around them.

Cultural centers, such as Natural History Museums, attempt to reconnect people with their environment through direct opportunities to observe nature.  The historical creation of dioramas in the 1800’s was the first step in integrating two- and three-dimensional displays to show how the non-living environment and living organisms interacted in a natural system.  More recently, exhibits have begun incorporating interactive elements such as touchscreen displays, multimedia projections, and full sensory experiences.  A great example of this new type of exhibit in action is The American Museum of Natural History’s “Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture” exhibit.  With this installation, visitors have the opportunities to visit and hear sounds from a life-size Aztec Market in the 16th century, smell different ingredients used in global cuisine, learn about how taste is a combination of chemical interactions and smell, and interact with tabletop video screen that offers step-by-step tutorial on creating global recipes.

The food exhibit is just one way in which museums are embracing new forms of conservation education.  Recent practices have been moving away from one-directional learning opportunities, arguing that to improve knowledge retention students need to seek, use, share, and reflect on information.  Aside from just interacting with facts, communication is a key step to learning.  This can emerge from discussions between professionals and amateurs as well as between peer-to-peer interactions.  These educational interactions are becoming commonplace in the academic community due to the inundation of social networking in society.  Already, blogs, podcasts, twitter, and instagram have provided opportunities for communities to share and discuss information.  These online conversations are allowing shared ideas to permeate throughout the community with a common goal of promoting conservation.

More than just promoting conversations, scientists are now embracing the role amateurs can have in research.  These opportunities, known as “Citizen Science Programs”, encourage individuals to engage in observing and recording observations that can be shared with the larger scientific community.  It allows for professionals to learn how to interact with and teach amateurs using common everyday language as opposed to isolating scientific conversation to a smaller professional community.  In addition, these new opportunities engage younger students in science, encouraging them to share their data with peers and providing them an opportunity to participate in real hands on research.  Creating these connections between professionals and amateurs is key in expanding conservation knowledge and concern throughout the community.  Only through these methods of active participation and discussion can individuals begin to reflect on their role as integral members of the biological community.