How could distal influence in Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory affect one’s perception and learning experiences on ocean acidification free-choice learning?

I am a new scholar and since this is my first post, so I’ll start by introducing myself, my background, and then briefly talking about the research topic and the theory as well as paradigm that frame my research.

My name is Shu-Min Tsai, and I am the Malouf Scholar for Oregon Sea Grant. I am pursuing my Ph.D. degree in Environmental Science at Oregon State University. I just finished my prelim and now am a Ph.D. candidate. I am now doing my dissertation research in Taiwan, Brazil and the U.S. Graduate school can be hard and a dredge, and it is not an exception for me especially during the pandemic since my dissertation project is mainly based on museum study regarding the environmental issue – ocean acidification perception among the public.

I am from Taiwan, an island country with a diverse ecosystem and culture. Since ocean acidification (OA) is a serious problem to Taiwan’s coral reef ecosystem and fisheries, also, it is having considerable effects on the Oregon coast, I want to understand more how people’s environmental identity (EID) and worldview could affect their learning experiences on this abstract and complicated climate change issue in a free-choice learning setting (i.e., aquariums and museums).

In the real world, although OA has profound impacts to our marine ecosystem and coastal communities and is often thought of as the evil twins of climate change, the acknowledgment, and understanding of OA among the public is low. The reasons is that to most people, OA is irrelevant to their life experiences also most people are not familiar with its chemical reaction that cause harm to the marine ecosystem; so, all of the reasons cause the awareness of OA and its impacts low among the public. What’s more, OA is a complicated issue not just due to its scientific aspects, it also connects to other aspects that involve personal and social factors such as personal worldview, family education, social norms, and national beliefs. In summary, these factors that I’ve mentioned make the engagement with OA concepts in public settings difficult. So how could we solve this problem?

According to several studies, one of the ways to link people with the environment is through environmental education (EE). Several studies have shown that EE and early childhood experiences with nature can help shape one’s EID. Here, I want to clarify that the EID I mention here and in my dissertation is a combination of Clayton’s environmental identity and environmental worldviews.

So again, I have mentioned that the EE and early childhood experiences with nature can help shape one’s EID. And I believe, reciprocally, one’s EID also affects one’s beliefs or perceptions on specific environmental issues, or their willingness to engage in environmental problem solving, and to address specific issues in the public. In other words, I think, this is a process that has a feedback loop that if an individual has effective EE experiences, these experiences could help us construct EID, literacy. And then ideally, we would put more trust and equity to nature, and then this process could strengthen our environmental identity or even refine or reconstruct it.

However, although we have acknowledged the power of EE and how EE helps construct or refine one’s EID, few studies have focused on how one’s EID affects their further environmental learning experiences. Not to mention what role does EID plays in abstract issues education such as OA learning experiences or people’s will to learn. Therefore, I think it would be worth doing such research focusing on how EID affects one’s EE learning experiences, especially in free-choice learning settings.

To sum up, my overall research goals are to evaluate the influence of EID in abstract environmental concepts perception (e.g., climate change & ocean acidification) in free-choice learning settings and hope to provide a forum for researchers and educators to facilitate future museum exhibition designs and interpretation regarding the public awareness on abstract and complex environmental issues.

To access my research goals, I conduct three study phases to answer three different but related questions as follows:

Phase I, identifying one’s relationship with nature using the EID survey

Phase II, investigating one’s perception before and after they visit the museum and what contributes to their perceptions (this includes their childhood memories or past education) through PMM.

Phase III, conducting an in-depth interview to understand what personal life stories contribute to their EID enactment and their learning experiences.

However, before we go deep into my research, I want to first discuss the theory and paradigm that frame this research. To study the relationship between one’s EID and people’s learning in a free-choice learning setting, I think we should consider how one’s EID is constructed and then refined during one’s lifetime. So, I would like to introduce Bronfenbrenner’s ecological system theory to you since Bronfenbrenner’s ecological system theory would be a suitable model for us to think about EID’s construction and refinement.

Specifically, Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory sees child development as a complex system of relationships affected by multiple levels of the surrounding environment, from immediate settings of family and school to broad cultural values, laws, and customs.

To study a child’s development and how a child learns, educators must look not only at the child and his/her immediate environment but also at the interaction of the larger environment as well. And in my study, this larger environment points to the free-choice learning settings, especially museums and aquariums regarding my research topic on people’s understanding of complex and abstract scientific concepts – climate change and ocean acidification.

In my opinion, museums settings are places that meet the criteria of cognitive development in Bronfenbrenner’s ecological system theory – individual’s values and identity (e.g., EID) would be influenced by not only their own life experiences (e.g., education) or family values, but also the history, cultural-artifacts, or even from the community or the society (social norms, national identity, and etc.) In other words, we could expect to observe not only proximal influences (e.g., family values, individual beliefs, etc.) but also distal influences on the individual’s EID and values construction in these settings.

What I want to emphasize is that, in his theory model, media, museums are considered as the distal influence of one’s ID construction. Therefore, I consider it is important to think about how we as museum researchers or educators could influence an individual’s EID from the macrosystem. Or in other words, how we can use these distal influences to affect an individual’s EID construction or promote the public perceptions on OA and even trigger pro-environmental behaviors and stewardship. 

Besides Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological System theory, I use sociocultural theory as my research epistemology. It is because studies have indicated that the important aspect in maintaining and constructing identity is the recognition by others. And for the purpose of this research, I am focusing on both the personal and sociocultural contexts that are both important contexts that construct visitor’s museum experience. Also, since I believe that an individual’s EID is shaped by cultural-historical contexts such as artifacts and ways of thinking passed down from generation to generation, the sociocultural theory will be a good fit for my research since it emphasizes both social contexts and the mediating role of cultural-historical perspectives of the community encoded into artifacts.

Last but not the least, I consider this study will be conducted under the pragmatism paradigm since it acknowledges the importance of social-cultural contexts in human knowledge and worldview construction and refinement. And this claim is complimentary with the sociocultural theory that social and cultural contexts play a critical role in learning. Another reason is that I believe different types of research questions within a specific topic need specific methods to access. And this is what the pragmatism paradigm asserts – “the best method is the one that is most effective in producing the desired consequences of the inquiry.”

I am now collecting data in Taiwan’s museums and aquariums and also in the future in the U.S. and Brazil. I am now excited to see the differences between northern Taiwan and southern Taiwan where has different types of shoreline (sand versus rock), education levels, economic and resources status, etc. Hope you will enjoy my further post on my dissertation research around the world.

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One thought on “How could distal influence in Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory affect one’s perception and learning experiences on ocean acidification free-choice learning?

  1. Great first post, and thank you for such a thorough description of your research. Congratulations on progressing to PhD candidacy, it’s clear you are well-versed in the theoretical underpinnings of your research! Is there a difference in how the concept of OA or climate change is presented, based on where the museum is? I am excited to learn more about what you find and the differences between each of your study locations.

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