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Cultural Probes for Environmental Education: Designing Learning Materials to Engage Children and Teenagers with Local Biodiversity
Researchers from the Field Guide project, funded by The Foundation for Science and Technology, Portugal (FCT), recently published an article (Matos et al. 2022) in Plos-One, a nonprofit, Open Access journal, published by the Public Library of Science (PLOS). The paper reflects the inter-disciplinary nature of Field Guide, which draws on key themes from environmental education, nature conservation and human-computer interaction. Field Guide strives to create opportunities to expose local communities to their ecosystems through mobile interaction. Set in the Azores, a volcanic archipelago in the North Atlantic, the study that underlies the article focuses on creating environmental education materials (EEM) for local youths. Despite its relatively low human population density, the archipelago faces ecological challenges, such as increasing human intervention, land-use change, invasive species, and climatic shifts (Borges et al. 2020, Borges et al. 2019, Patiño et al. 2016). The article proposes cultural probes (Gaver et al. 1999) for designing environmental education materials as its key contribution.
The cultural probes are a qualitative research technique commonly used in design-led research. The method entails the creation of probe packages for research participants with items with a series of evocative tasks that are often open-ended and playful. The technique is valuable when researchers seek a "deeper understanding of a given theme" (Thoring et al., 2013) on behalf of specific audiences. This article presents the results from a study using the CP technique in a toolkit that invited participants to engage with a series of tasks by interacting with probe items and generating questions regarding the local environment.
The study took place in December 2019 in the Trail of Mistérios Negros, located in Terceira's Nature Park in the Azores. Results demonstrate that engagement with the CP technique not only provided participants with sensory, emotional, and aesthetic experiences in nature it also presented the potential for youths to generate questions regarding the surrounding environment. The cultural probe toolkit drew on ideas from inquiry-based learning (King 1992, King 1994) and trends in environmental education research that privilege sensory, emotional, and aesthetic experiences (Sauvé 2005). Through this study, the team of researchers retrieved 137 specific questions with a high level of diversity.
The scientific community often supports the creation of nature interpretation guides to provide relevant ecological information to the general population. This article details a bottom-up process that more actively involves local communities by offering a tool to share their thoughts and ask scientists what they, as individuals or a community, know or would like to know about their local environment. Environmental educators have long recognized that "content should emerge from and address the needs of a local community" (Peace Corps 1999). This study proposes the cultural probe technique as a means through which researchers working in EE can respond to such challenges by devising contextually relevant materials.
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Matos S, Silva AR, Sousa D, Picanc¸o A, R. Amorim I, Ashby S, et al. (2022) Cultural probes for environmental education: Designing learning materials to engage children and teenagers with local biodiversity. PLoS ONE 17(2): e0262853. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0262853