Developing 21st-century naturalists

How do you cultivate a naturalist?

I landed on this question one day while walking past the window of my independent bookstore. I saw the book The Not So Great Outdoors by author and illustrator Madeline Kloepper. It is a story about a young girl who is dreading her family's upcoming camping trip. She wants nothing to do with nature, thinks nature is dirty and believes there is nothing to do out there. This young girl spends a good part of the story being grumpy and wanting to go home.

Then something changed her mind. 

You'll have to get the book to find out what it was. 

I read this book in the store before buying it. As I was walking away from the store, I began to wonder,

How does interest in nature develop? What factors contribute to developing this interest?

Fortunately the paper, Becoming a Naturalist: Interest Development Across the Learning Ecology, provides some insight. 

In this paper, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh created a study to explore how the Carnegie Museum of Natural History might support the development of a 21st-century naturalist. The research team of Marijke Hecht, Karen Knutson, and Kevin Crowley define a 21st-century naturalist as someone who is:

  • Scientifically literate.

  • Environmentally literate.

  • Capable of making local to global connections.

  • Ecologically-minded and involved in their communities.

  • Someone who embraces the urban environment as part of the natural world.

So why does interest matter? 

Interest matters because as the authors of this paper explain, it is a "nod to learning" and represents a desire to learn more about something. This desire is the key to learning in any environment.  

Hecht et al. explain that while a lot of the research about interest development is conducted in schools or school-like settings, research has also been conducted in informal learning environments. These studies have shown that informal learning environments can trigger interest.  

In the paper Becoming a Naturalist, the research team spoke with professional and serious amateur naturalists to investigate how these adults describe their lifelong connection to nature. Researchers studied these results to identify moments of interest.

The research team also looked for factors that might help to maintain an interest in nature.  

Hecht et al. interviewed 18 individuals. Fifteen of them were professional naturalists. Six of the fifteen conducted research and/or were involved in natural resource management in some way. The remaining nine professionals from this group of fifteen were educators who integrated nature into their work either through science or art. The remaining three participants were serious amateur naturalists.

In addition to the interviews, researchers asked participants to complete a questionnaire. Here is what researchers learned about interest development from this group of participants.  

Hecht et al. learned that participants' interest in nature was attributed mainly to independent outdoor time. After taking into consideration all comments, it was determined that three-quarters of the nature experiences participants perceived as being significant, happened outside of the classroom. Hecht et al. also found it was a combination of experiences, both structured and unstructured, that contributed to participants' ongoing interest in nature. 

The research team's investigation into the lifelong commitment of participants revealed that the following are important for interest development:

  1. Persistent exposure to nature during childhood.

  2. Independent outdoor time.

  3. Outdoor experiences receiving support from parents and other mentors.

The research team closes their paper by stating that programs in informal learning environments have a role to play that goes beyond merely providing exposure to nature. They ask educators who work in this type of environment to consider the following questions.

How can your program provide an opportunity for children to experience something that resembles independent outdoor time, if they are not afforded this by their families? 

 How can programs in informal learning environments provide structural support and mentorship to youth in ways that not only trigger interest, but support individual interest development?

Learn more about this investigation by downloading the article below.

Literature Cited

Hecht, M., Knutson, K. & Crowley, K. (2019). Becoming a naturalist: Interest development across the learning ecology. Science Education. 103(3): 1-23 (Download PDF)

Madeline Kloepper, author of The Not-So Great Outdoors

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Tania Marien