As you may already know, my dissertation is about family interactions with live animals in informal learning settings and the links between their discourse and experience into the development of conservation dialogue. There is literature in the field of informal science education, environmental education and interpretation that pertains to this topic, and some research has been done to look at the link between these animal interactions and increased conservation awareness through empathy, however results may still fall into questionable categories.

For the first part of my literature review, I have focused on studies that relate to emotions and live animal interactions in respect to: 1) Relationships between exposure, resulting affect and educational outcomes; 2) Common emotions people feel when they have the chance to interact with live animals in general, the “cozy” vs. “scary” animals, and familiar vs. wild animals; and 3) The role of the affective component on learning.

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To make a long story short, animals make us feel! Whether they are “fuzzy” and “cuddly” like kittens and bunnies, or “disgusting” and “scary” like spiders and snakes, different animals raise different feelings in us, which are tied to what we know and experience (cognition), as well as with the opportunities we have to interact with particular animals. Generally it is discussed that aesthetics is a powerful determinant of affect, how beautiful an animal or a landscape is perceived to be influences human emotions and how sensible we are to ecological factors and issues. In addition, this non-human charisma we develop for animals is also a product of different parameters that are highly contextual and culturally oriented, including considerations of spiritual significance, symbolic meaning and material value.

As you can see at this point, charisma and empathy building (which may lead to more ecological and conservation awareness) is far too complex to measure. With that in mind, I am looking at my research in a way that is not about measuring increased conservation awareness in families, instead it is about the potential for that reflected in their discourse. To give more solid substance to those observations and discussions of empathy and conservation, the second part of my literature review discusses studies outside the free-choice learning field (in general) and measures of learning. I am looking at papers in the field of psychology research that can be relevant to the argument of emotional and/or biological predispositions towards animals, which I hope will build on the argument of value development, specifically conservation value.

In sum, whether there is debate about the nature of conservation value building arguments and the validity of the claims from research, we do know that animals make us feel, and that feeling is associated with cognitive appraisal and bodily responses from the interaction. Therefore I believe there is a lot of room to investigate this conservation argument further by not only looking at these learner response/ evaluative studies but also laying down the psychological basis of empathy building.

If you feel like learning more on this topic send me a note and I can send you some references. Just in case you don’t have enough to read already to read 🙂


I am taking a break from writing about Cyberlab today, since I have been in a work retreat this past weekend and trying to move forward with my research project. I am getting ready to dive into data collection, and one of my methods includes a focus group composed of professionals in various fields and organizations that have some relationship to the conservation mission. The goal is for us to develop a rubric for what counts as conservation talk when you are watching family discourse at live animal exhibits.

With that in mind, I have been doing a lot of thinking and reading about conservation, what it means, how it is talked about, where it happens, what mission it carries, and what does it really mean to different public audiences in Free-Choice Learning settings. While doing so, I stumbled across Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud” show about the value of Nature. Guest speakers were Michael Nelson (Professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Oregon State University) and Cathy Macdonald (Oregon Director of conservation programs for the Nature Conservancy). They carried on a short but interesting conversation that added a whole new dimension to my thinking as I design a conservation message intervention for one of the activities my recruited families will go through.

The main discussion revolved around the intrinsic versus utilitarian value of nature, how such values align with the conservation message and which would be best used to deliver a resource conservation message to various audiences. Nelson is a co-author on a recent paper emphasizing the point that, when given the opportunity to express intrinsic value, people tend to really do it. The problem lies in cross-disciplinary confusion about what intrinsic value means; therefore, the professional conservation community is missing out when they do not incorporate an intrinsic value component to their framework of thinking.

I see both intrinsic and utilitarian values as equally useful tools in spreading the conservation message, but how do we accomplish that? Say in live animal exhibits such as the touch-tanks I will be doing my research on. Light bulb went on! I think I can have a most focused way to create a background for my rubric as I watch the families’ discourse and can classify what kinds of values they are expressing, intrinsic or utilitarian, and use that as baseline data for our focus group discussions. If adding intrinsic value to an animal is an indicator of some conservation awareness or a firm component of conservation mission, then we can’t disregard that kind of discourse during family interactions.

That brings me back to my dilemma now as to what kind of intervention to design so as to purposely expose participating families to a conservation message. Do I focus on the utilitarian aspects or intrinsic aspects or both? How can we combine it all within this rubric-creating exercise? Moreover, how can it all relate to the literature suggestion that experiencing live animals in exhibits generates a level of conservation awareness in visitors? I am sure the nature of qualitative work will help guide the phases of research based on the collected data itself. I am super excited to start putting all these thoughts into solid research activities to generate solid and novel tools to be used within the same research and to generate original results about what family conservation talk looks like in free-choice learning settings. That would add an exciting new dimension to what we already know about biological talk at touch-tanks by previous research from Shawn Rowe and Jim Kisiel, and add conservation talk to the body of knowledge out there. At least, I hope so.

What about you? Do you think that the conservation field can benefit from incorporating intrinsic value in their activities a little more and making it a solid component for their mission?