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Open Access Publications from the University of California

"That's My Kind of Animal!" Designing and Assessing an Outdoor Science Education Program with Children's Megafaunaphilia in Mind

  • Author(s): Migliarese, Nicole Lynne
  • Advisor(s): Hurst, John G
  • et al.

Children are naturally curious about plants and animals, and while they no longer have the same amount of direct experience with and knowledge of the natural world that previous generations did, they do have a high degree of exposure to mediated nature through television, film, and the Internet. The media, however, are often criticized for the highly stylized ways they represent the natural world. In the absence of direct, hands-on nature experiences with their own local plants and animals, children's knowledge and expectations of the natural world are being shaped by their vicarious experiences with mediated nature. The deeply nuanced relationship between modern children and mediated nature has only recently begun to appear in formal research schemes and much remains unknown about the ways that mediated nature biases children in the absence of direct experiences of the natural world.

The present, quasi-experimental, study explored three hypothesis-clusters regarding the cognitive, affective, and behavioral factors involved in children's participation in a residential, outdoor science education program. Specifically, the study assessed the outcomes of participation in a semi-structured, though brief, intervention embedded within the outdoor science program. The intervention was specifically designed to take into account children's preferences for large, charismatic animals—their megafaunaphilia—and their nature-experience expectations. Given these preferences and expectations, the intervention lesson featured a direct, hands-on encounter with local wildlife specimens in which the tactile element of the experience was emphasized.

Students from nine Grade 5 classrooms in a rural school district in Northern California (n= 260) were both pre- and delayed post-tested using an in-class survey instrument. As a means of addressing possible testing bias, a tenth class completed only the post-test (n=29). Pre-test results indicated that children, despite having positive affective attitudes toward nature, possessed limited knowledge of local species. A delayed post-test (average time, 19 weeks) revealed significant knowledge gains for students. Detected more than four months after participation in the residential, outdoor science education program, these knowledge gains appear to be persistent. Students in the treatment condition did not appear to receive additional cognitive benefit from participation in the intervention lesson. As hypothesized, children expressed a high level of interest in local species even prior to participation in the outdoor science program; similarly, children expressed a strong preference for learning about wildlife through direct modes. Their preferences—both for local versus exotic species and for direct versus vicarious modes of learning—were not significantly changed at the time of post-testing.

Results of this study may be insightful for educators in formal and informal science learning contexts—as well as for conservationists—for whom increasing children's knowledge of and interest in the natural world are considered to be important goals. Specifically, programmatic recommendations are made in light of these findings regarding the interplay between children's consumption of mediated nature and the outcomes of their engaging in direct, hands-on nature experiences.

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