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Below The Surface

Thursday, June 4, 2009

What is a Healthy Lake?

This spring I contracted the Center for Rural Studies to include two questions in their annual Vermonter Poll. I had to come up with two questions that would help inform the Voices For the Lake project. Just two - that's a bit of a challenge, huh? The purpose of the VFL project is to help raise awareness and inspire people to make a difference by helping improve water quality in their community. As this stewed in my brain, I began to think about what the perceptions were of water quality. How did people in the Lake Champlain basin see the Lake? What were they thinking?

Jessica Hyman from the Center for Rural Studies helped me work through all this and come up with my two questions for the poll. What she helped me realize is that I needed a baseline to start from and then the next generation of the evaluative process for the project could build upon this first poll. I didn't want multiple choice, I didn't want to feed them answers. I wanted the pollsters to tell me something. And they did.

My first question was very open-ended. What defines a healthy lake? Respondents were asked what words they associated with a healthy lake.

  • 42% used the word CLEAN
  • 25% referred to supporting FISH, PLANT or ANIMAL LIFE
  • 17% used POLLUTION FREE
  • 16% said CLEAR

Other words used were SWIMMABLE, AESTHETICS, ALGAE/INVASIVE FREE, DRINKABLE, EDIBLE FISH. And get this - HEALTHY ECOSYSTEM and HEALTHY SHORELINE. Hmm, great answers, right? What I got out of this though is that I still need to ask more questions. Like: What does clean mean? What is pollution? What is healthy?

Again, perceptions. I could tell you what clean water is. I could give you a text book definition of pollution and then again, water pollution. But what I really want to know, what I really need to know in order to have this project reach it's goals is: What do the people in the Lake Champlain Basin think these things mean?

VFL Team member Linda Bowden helped me bring this question to the guests at ECHO during Earth Week. We had a blast running around with video cameras recording responses to the question of the day which was, what three words would you use to describe a healthy lake?

Here's the result:

This exercise of asking one question to a number of people and capturing their answers on video was informative in a variety of ways. Approaching people is tough, some wanted to talk, some didn't. We wanted adults to answer the questions, the adults were more keen on having their kids answer the question. The answers came quick, they were brief (which made editing easy)...and then there's the challenge of editing! So, lots to think about. And lots to think about before I hit the road to capture video at local libraries and other community events. I'm playing with a set of questions and statements to use to frame interviews as we move forward with collecting stories about the watershed. Check back in again to the blog and our YouTube page to see what we've come up with...

~Bridget, Voices For the Lake Manager


Trevor Nesbit said...

Hi Bridget,

"Again, perceptions. I could tell you what clean water is. I could give you a text book definition of pollution and then again, water pollution. But what I really want to know, what I really need to know in order to have this project reach it's goals is: What do the people in the Lake Champlain Basin think these things mean?"

Maybe what you are driving at here is identifying how people identify themselves as actors responsible for the health of an ecosystem. And what components of identity building are involved to move people down a path of science learning and behavior change.

Is the person who answers "algea/invasive free" more fluent and responsible than one who answers "clean"? Are people who use certain words more likely to exhibit particular behaviors toward the environment?

By keying on how people use certain words, you may get an insight into what words people are using to identify with
"a healthy lake" and how those words reflect a level of understanding and perhaps commitment. What does this really mean to know what words people use?!

How could we imagine a free choice experience where we can gain insight into how the use of certain words and tools reflects a certain identity, or comfort with science learning? What tools create an experience across multiple settings, over time, and through their use learners increasingly identify themselves as part of an ecosystem that is impacted by personal behavior and policy decisions?

How does that experience appeal to one who considers themselves as knowledgeable about science, or environmental issues?

How does it appeal to one that is less educated in science, but is interested in learning about it?

How does it appeal people who are interested in using digital media, but not necessarily interested in the Lake. Or, not interested in using media.

Gosh..questions's another - what is the theoretical construct to ground the experience and experiment in by which a random sampling of users reveal the impact of a learning experience on their behavior?

Are we focusing on simply constructing knowledge? Or also appealing to some underlying interest and leveraging that to bring out a certain learning and social identity?

And by revealing some larger function, like one visitor recruiting another to participate in an experience, how can we gain insight into the disaggregated components that synthesized to develop that visitors behavior?

With what methods is such an experience designed in order to be iteratively refined for a certain outcome?

Those are just some questions that I hope we can think about and discuss as we look to combine our VFL efforts.

Looking forward to catching up soon.


Voices For the Lake said...

Great questions Trevor! Thank you for your thoughts on what we can learn from the words people choose to use.

Things that popped into my mind while reading your questions:

What would happen if we asked visitors to describe algae? Simpler still, what if we used emoticons and words? What emoticon would people associate with the word algae? This strikes me as interesting because not all algae is invasive or "bad".

Are people becoming parrots when visiting a science center? Are they just repeating the phrases we use to describe issues without real understanding of the issue?

I recently read a wonderful article in Museum magazine by Nina Simon on how to frame questions to encourage visitor dialogue. The Voices For the Lake Project continues to play and experiment with these ideas.

Our next survey through the Center for Rural Studies is about to be launched which will give us a glimpse into how people get information on water quality in their communities and how they are moved to make a difference.

Thanks again for engaging us in dialogue through our blog!

~Bridget Butler, Voices For the Lake Manager