Participating in the California Naturalist Program: Changes in science and environmental identity
The UC California Naturalist Program is a new interdisciplinary education program focused on teaching ecology and natural history to foster a scientifically literate public ready to contribute to environmental problem solving. With this goal, it is important to understand how interest in science and the environment develop. The purpose of this study was to examine how and why participants’ science and environmental identity shifted during and after the California Naturalist training program. In this context, identity refers to the extent to which people feel they know about, use, and sometimes contribute to science and environmental activities. In this case, participants may be motivated to learn ecological science to improve their ability to contribute to the environment through education, stewardship, citizen science, or local conservation actions. To examine if and why science and environmental identity changed as a result of the UC California Naturalist Program and subsequent volunteer activities, we conducted and analyzed interviews with 30 participants immediately following the course, 6 months, and 12 months after participation in the course. Qualitative analysis of interviews to track changes in science and environmental identity was conducted using NVivo software.
Many participants experienced shifts in their identity related to science, the environment, or both. About half of participants reported feeling more confident and comfortable with science, feeling more knowledgeable about science, and having a better understanding of the scientific process after taking the course. In addition, about half of participants felt a deeper connection to places they visited, felt more capable to engage in environmental stewardship activities, became more committed to environmental stewardship, felt more knowledgeable about environmental issues, and were more curious about the natural world. Several participants expressed a strong linkage between their science and environmental identities. In particular, the emphasis on citizen science as part of this program and in volunteer efforts after the course influenced the participants’ movement toward stronger affinity and confidence in understanding and doing science. Statewide master naturalist programs have expanded across the U.S. as a vehicle for ecology education to reach broad adult audiences, and have the potential to be a potent means of increasing ecological literacy and action. These findings therefore have implications for the ways that the many widespread statewide master naturalist programs across the U.S. engage their participants in field-based trainings, volunteer stewardship opportunities, and citizen science projects.