Social Media and Environmental Education

As I’ve mentioned on Twitter but perhaps not here, the topic of my master’s degree project involves the use of social media for environmental education (I won’t bore you with too many details, but step one is going to be a survey of nature center administrators on if and how it’s used by their organizations). Recently I went to an environmental education conference and was surprised by the skeptical and even hostile reactions of some of the people there when I told them about my project – one woman literally made a face and cried “Social media? Oh, bleah!”

Apparently I need to have some sort of defense prepared.

I can understand where they’re coming from. A lot of environmental educators (very rightly!) see part of their job as getting kids away from their computer screens and outside into nature, and I think they hear the phrase “social media” and immediately think of something that’s going to cause people to spend even more time sitting in front of their computers. There’s also a perception among a lot of people, not just environmental educators, that social media is a frivolous waste of time – once when I mentioned to someone that I’m on Twitter their reaction was “Oh, so you, what, post updates about what you ate for breakfast?”

However, I would argue that social media actually has a lot of potential for environmental education – and even for getting people outside. Speaking from my own experience, I can definitely say I spend more time walking around outside in the woods and know more about natural history than I would if I didn’t blog. Blogging (and the need to come up with stuff to blog about) has pushed me to become a better photographer, to learn more about plants and insects and many other topics, and to simply spend more time outside looking at stuff. Additionally, it’s plugged me into a community of people with similar interests, something I wasn’t really expecting when I started but which has been incredibly fulfilling. Twitter too, and because Twitter is much more immediate and faster-moving than a blog it has its own unique uses – when we had that fantastic aurora a couple weeks ago, after I came in from watching it I typed “northern lights” into the search box in Twitter, and immediately had a good idea of how far south it had extended as I scrolled through tweets from Tennessee and Texas. Another time someone I follow posted a photo of a salamander they’d come across and I found myself debating with several other people from different parts of the country whether it was a tiger or spotted, all of us posting links to more photos and other resources as we tried to arrive at an ID.

And it’s not just me. Believe it or not, there is research and literature to back me up. A 2005 NEETF report on environmental literacy in America found that one of the biggest motivators for engaging in environmentally responsible behavior is feeling that you are part of a community of other people doing the same. Guess what social networks provide? And my new favorite study is one that just came out this year, analyzing how a Facebook app designed to disseminate information about climate change and provide a forum for discussing environmentally responsible behavior affected its participants (“Environmental learning in online social networks: adopting environmentally responsible behaviors,” by Robelia, Greenhow, and Burton, in the August 2011 issue of Environmental Education Research). They found that not only did participants’ level of environmental literacy increase, but their level of real-life, not-on-the-internet environmental activism and behavior increased. Unlike posting your bra color in your Facebook status (the ladies know what I’m talking about), this is not just “slacktivism”!

Every environmental educator needs to read this series of articles on social media for scientists (or, “why every scientist should tweet”), because the same principles apply. I find social media immensely useful and fun, but even those who don’t have to admit that for better or worse this is simply how people communicate now – EE has to adapt, or it risks becoming irrelevant.


10 thoughts on “Social Media and Environmental Education”

  1. Bsically, I agree with you, although I am not an educator, so maybe my opinion doesn’t count. However, since the younger generation is plugged into social media to the extent that they are, if you’re going to reach them, you have to communicate in the same way they do. I can understand the reluctance by some educators to adapt to social media communications, as it is marketing first, message second, you have to “grab” some one first before you can deliver the message.

    I am a member of the Little Traverse Conservancy, and they use Facebook very adeptly to communicate to both their membership and the general public. They use it much like a newsletter to keep people informed as to what they are doing, when they are doing it, and why they are doing it, and I look forward to their posts. Their use of Facebook makes me wish that I had more time and more opportunity to take part in their activities.

    On the other hand, Trout Unlimited seems to think that posting something every half an hour of every day is the way to get people involved, even if much of what they post is meaningless blather. I got sick of it and dropped TU from my news feed, even though I am a life member of that organization.

    So I agree with you that effective use of social media can and will get people involved on a personal level, if done correctly. It is yet another tool to use to reach people, and why wouldn’t you want to use all the tools you can, rather than use only the tools you’re comfortable with presently?

  2. Yes yes yes! I love what you say here! And perhaps it’s not becoming de rigueur to use social media as a teaching/research tool just yet, but it IS happening. People are starting to harness the power of the internet to get people out doing science, ask them to become naturalists in their hometowns, get them excited about the world around them, etc. and I think it’s an amazing thing. The people who don’t accept the internet as a valid form of communication for natural science education are totally missing out on something wonderful – and also ignoring the reality that people DO spend an incredible amount of their time on their computers. If people are going to be online anyway, isn’t it best that they learn something about their world and their environment, that they’re inspired to get outside to learn more on their own or as a part of an organized event? I think people like you who choose to use the internet as a teaching tool are much more realistic about how to really reach people these days, especially young people, than those that think that using social media is antithetical to the goals of environmental education.

    Twitter is also becoming an excellent source of science news and information! The person who asked if you posted about breakfast clearly isn’t using Twitter like I am. The vast majority of tweets I get in my feed are science related – and I’ve learned SO much since joining Twitter! It’s an amazing source of information if you’re a little choosy about who you follow and I tell lots of people that they should join if they’re interested in science.

    Best of luck with your project! It sounds fascinating and I’m sure you’re going to learn some very interesting things. I can’t wait to read more about it, either here or in publications.

  3. Even religious organizations are embracing social media to connect with youth. Time for everyone to get on board or be left in the technological dust. Nothing wrong with using social networking to encourage folks to get outside and enjoy the non-technological world…of course nice digital apps may help kids enjoy the outdoors by helping them identify plants and wildlife.

  4. Perhaps the “old fogies” don’t realize that most young people now access their social media apps through their cell phones–which they can bring with them outdoors. The idea of being tied to the computer is so 2009! :)

  5. I am one of the few people who doesn’t have a mobile phone (I live in a so-called remote area and there’s no mobile reception), so Twitter doesn’t work for me. I can see the good uses it can be put too, though. The trivial uses seem to get the bad press.

  6. Sigh. Social media gets such a bad rap. OK, sometimes – often – it deserves it. Still, when I lived in Indiana, my local state park (Indiana Dunes SP) posted occasional notes about upcoming programs – which did sometimes get me to the park. As a major migratory flyway, they would post photos of interesting birds seen recently, with notes as to where you’d be likely to see said critters. By using a combination of teasers, updates and just pretty pictures I think that they employed Facebook in a way that both taught and intrigued readers.

    When I started teaching myself WordPress (so I could help administer its use with a mailing list…. don’t ask.) I looked around to see what was interesting in my life at the time. I was going through training as a docent at a wildlife museum/rehab sanctuary in California. Since most folks don’t get the chance to play with snakes, kestrels or the other critters I worked with, I blogged about them – doing more research to make sure that I recalled my training accurately. Continuing the blog through subsequent moves, the natural world was a semi-regular subject. I got positive comments from people reading them – some of whom were actually strangers. I learned, and apparently so did they. Did anyone go outside? Couldn’t say, but at least they might have learned something.

    Would you consider LeafSnap social media? It is a tree identification/mapping app for iPhones that uses crowd sources to locate where species live. Since it only works if you have the leaf, presumably users are outside.

    Good luck with this project. I can see its merit.


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