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Designing Watershed-Based Education and Extension Efforts Through a Mental Model Research Approach

Wilson, Robyn
Ohio State University
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The proposed project will address the USDA National Integrated Water Quality Program goal of improving surface water quality by disseminating knowledge and providing tools that improve land use decision making among rural and urbanizing communities.

The proposed project will specifically address the themes of environmental restoration and watershed management, and the watershed scale issue of improving the effectiveness of conservation practices and programs by targeting critical populations in a degraded and rapidly urbanizing watershed. The project team believes that current education and extension efforts could be improved by targeting knowledge gaps and misperceptions among current and future streamside landowners in the risk-based context of degraded watersheds.

The research objectives are to 1) Identify ecological and risk-related knowledge gaps through mental models interviews with high school students, their parents, and other rural and urban streamside landowners; 2) Conduct a confirmatory survey that tests the results of the mental models with a representative sample of streamside landowners in the target subwatersheds; and 3) Determine the effectiveness of knowledge gap remediation by evaluating any change in knowledge and receipt of the risk communication message following remediation through the newly designed education and extension efforts.

The education objectives are to: 1) Use the knowledge gap analysis to develop a modified high school environmental science curriculum that facilitates risk messages by directly incorporating targeted information into science topics (i.e., watershed ecology); and 2) Use the curriculum to directly encourage receipt and understanding of watershed-based risk messages measured by a commitment to sustainable behaviors among high school students and their parents.

The extension objectives are to: 1) Use knowledge gap analysis to design web-based resources and educational programs for streamside landowners that increases their knowledge of stream dynamics and function within the target subwatersheds; 2) Use knowledge gap analysis to develop web-based decision tools that allow landowners to assess economic components of streamside protection, including the development of worksheets to estimate the costs and benefits of different activities, such as planting trees or grasslands, establishing wetlands, establishing rain-gardens, etc.; 3) Promote long-term adoption of streamside conservation and management practices identified by individual landowners in the target subwatersheds through a series of structured decision making workshops and follow-up web-based decision support and tracking tools; and 4) Increase the watershed management capacity of community-based watershed management organizations by disseminating the findings and products from the mental models research to the local watershed organizations in the Lower Big Walnut watershed, to other organizations statewide through the Ohio Watershed Academy, and to cooperating states in the Great Lakes Region through the Great Lakes Regional Water Program and the eXtension website.

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Non-Technical Summary: Headwater streams are critical in providing fundamental services in the watershed. These services include things like flood control, recycling nutrients, and supporting species diversity. However, headwaters are particularly vulnerable to human activities and influences that lead to their degradation. In many states, their legal protection is the responsibility of voluntary citizen action, but there are many cases where a variety of barriers prevent citizens from prioritizing their protection. The lack of protection for these streams has significant environmental and economic impacts on the local and greater watersheds. Protecting these streams requires significant education and extension efforts that enhance community knowledge about the ecological role of headwaters in the greater system, and the risks posed by their lack of protection. Successful efforts will require targeting the knowledge gaps and misperceptions among the community in order to enhance changes in attitudes and behaviors. The proposed project will disseminate knowledge and provide tools that improve land use decision making among rural and urbanizing communities. The project will improve the effectiveness of conservation practices and programs by targeting critical populations in a degraded and rapidly urbanizing watershed in central Ohio. We plan to identify these knowledge gaps through a mental models research approach. Such an approach is based on an in-depth assessment of the web of beliefs, or "mental model" that affects how an individual defines a problem and ultimately makes decisions about issues that are communicated to them. The results from the research component of the project will be used to develop a targeted watershed-based curriculum with high school educators, which will then be used to remediate knowledge gaps among students and their parents (i.e., current and future landowners in the watershed). Knowledge gaps among the larger community will be remediated through tailored on-going web support of landowner decisions and development of streamside land management plans. It is expected that a better understanding of these gaps, and the associated beliefs and perceptions of stakeholders, may illuminate ways to improve both educational efforts and inform landowner decision making, with the end goal of encouraging land conservation and reducing stream impairment due to habitat alteration.

Approach: The proposed project involves several sequential stages that are ultimately intended to improve the effectiveness of conservation practices and programs by enhancing individual and community level decision making for watershed conservation. The project will begin by employing a mental models approach to assess the knowledge, attitudes, and perceptions regarding watershed ecology and human impacts on water quality among a select group of high school students, their parents, and additional streamside landowners in the watershed. We will develop an initial technical model based on a review of available primary literature and semi-structured interviews with experts, regulatory personnel and academics. This expert model will be used to design the interview protocol for the mental models interviews, as well as form the content basis for initial coding and development of the mental models. Three separate mental models will be developed using open-ended interviews to represent the knowledge, perceptions, beliefs, and current and intended future behaviors of high school students, their parents, and a separate set of rural and urban streamside landowners. Once the expert and mental models have been developed, they will be compared to identify gaps in knowledge and potential points for emphasis in education and extension efforts. Gap analysis workshops will then be conducted with cooperating high school teachers to explain and discuss the knowledge and risk message gaps identified through the mental model assessment. The goal of these workshops will be to educate and communicate the findings to the teachers, as well as engage them in a collaborative process of curriculum infusion based on remediation of the identified gaps. During application of the curriculum over one semester, abbreviated mental models interviews will be conducted periodically to assess learning. Results from the research component of the project targeting parents and streamside landowners, and input from the project collaborators will be used to develop web-based resources (e.g., decision support and tracking tools) and education programs (e.g., webinars). Confirmatory surveys will be developed to 1) assess quantitatively the frequency of specific beliefs, attitudes, perceptions and behaviours identified through mental modelling and 2) to provide an avenue for evaluating the effectiveness of the extension materials. The target sample for the survey will be both rural and urban streamside landowners in the two subwatersheds. We will also hold six structured decision making (SDM) workshops intended to facilitate the creation of streamside landowner management plans for the impaired sections of the Rocky Fork and Blacklick Creek subwatersheds. Finally, focus groups will be held with SDM workshop participants to identify their reactions to the extension resources and programs, and any intended practice changes. Insight gained through these focus groups, along with feedback from the survey, will be used to revise existing extension materials and develop recommendations for future materials development.

Funding Source
Nat'l. Inst. of Food and Agriculture
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Education and Training
Risk Assessment, Management, and Communication
Nuts, Seeds