Heather Harkins, University of Connecticut

John Settlage, University of Connecticut




The goal of this study was to extend a consideration of culturally responsive teaching to a specific informal science educational experience. Defined as using “the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of diverse students as conduits for teaching” (Gay, 2002, p. 106), most considerations of culturally responsive teaching have concentrated about formal educational settings, and typically focus upon preservice teachers (e.g., Gay & Kirkland, 2003). For this study, the “teachers” were naturalists providing instruction during a public environmental awareness event.

Implicit emphases of this event were biodiversity and environmental awareness. As such, there was a tacit expectation that public involvement in the biological inventory would promote awareness beyond scientific knowledge and also accommodate issues of culture, history, and geography (Jenkins, 2003). Biodiversity is of considerable concern at the international level and studies of people’s perceptions have been reported for citizens of Turkey (Yilmaz, Boone & Anderson, 2004), Greece (Korfiatis, Stamou & Paaskevopoulos, 2004), Mexico (Barraza & Walford, 2002), Great Britain (Grotzer & Basca, 2003), and Kenya (Ali, 2002). Despite the urgency of biodiversity education (e.g., Gayford, 2000) there are considerable gaps in the educational research literature.

Within an extensive review of environmental education research, Rickinson (2001) identified gaps in the literature, two of which closely relate to the focus of the present study. First, Rickinson noted the lack of studies within environmental education that considered interactions among students and their peers, teachers/educators, and family members. This would seem to signal a largely individualized view of the learning process within the extant environmental education literature. In a similar vein, Rickinson called for research examining influences of social factors (culture, SES, gender, etc.) on students. This indicates the paucity of environmental education research situated within a critical, sociopolitical framework. The current study is an effort to address this gap.


  In her study of the production of scientists with different contexts, Eisenhardt (1996) found that environmental biologists working within an academic department created an identity of ‘scientist’ that resisted the hegemonic dimensions of laboratory science (advocating instead the superiority of field work over controlled and abstracted experimentation) while embracing the power accompanying the accumulation of empirically-grounded knowledge. In contrast, conservation biologists employed at a nonprofit corporation had identities shaped by a desire to be regarded as credible scientists but tempered by the need to have business savvy (e.g., making budget-based decisions) and political know-how (e.g., resolving differences through compromise). The structural forces of these two science settings contributed to the formation of contrasting scientist identities. Unlike Buxton (2005) who used Eisenhardt’s dialectic between structural and individual forces to investigate the production of identity, we did not endeavor to make this distinction. Instead, we gathered data focusing exclusively upon individuals’ perceptions but without claiming that these findings would extend to naturalists in general; in short, we do not wish to insinuate the data reported here in some way describes the repertoire of practice within the community of naturalists (Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003).

The context of this study was unique. The event itself was an intensive biodiversity inventory of a 2.5-mile radius centered upon a magnet middle school. Over 150 professional biologists from universities and non-government organizations invested twenty-four hours in an effort to catalog as many species as could be found. The announced total was 1791 species of organisms, a number which is especially significant because the site contained a substantial slice of an urban environment. Although this was an annual event, it was the first time where a deliberate educational component was included. For example, twenty students from the magnet school, some of whom were residents of inner-city neighborhoods, spent twenty-four hours at the school participating in fieldwork with the scientists.

Design of the Study

Data were gathered via a participant-observer approach in conjunction with presentations made by naturalists. The naturalists were experts within a certain realm of biology (e.g., trees, mammals, insects) and had been recruited to provide one-hour tours to interested members of the general public. Prior to the tour, the naturalists were approached by a member of the research team and asked whether they would be willing to be interviewed following the tour. During the tour itself, the researcher was an unobtrusive member of the audience and participated in bird-watching, tree identification, or whatever else occurred during the tour. Following the tour, the naturalist participated in a one-on-one, semi-structured interview (see Table 1).

The interviews were audio recorded, transcribed, and examined for revealing patterns. The date we report here came from two of the researchers’ interviews of three naturalists each. In an effort to frame this study, we posed three alternative hypotheses through which we planned to evaluate the data. We speculated that each naturalist would express a viewpoint that would fall into one of these categories. This was done in an effort to clarify our efforts to analyze the data. The three competing explanations are outlined in Table 2.

We aimed to assess the influence of non-mainstream students upon the naturalists’ perceptions about and implementation of their respective nature walks. In intentional yet subtle ways, we sought to uncover glimmers of culturally relevant pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1995) or culturally congruent instruction (Au & Kawakami, 1994) within the beliefs and actions of the naturalists.


In what follows, we present our findings about the naturalists’ perceptions about the goals of the nature walks; we subsequently describe what happened as we tried to uncover their thinking about teaching diverse student populations.

Naturalists’ Perceptions of Goals

For the most part, the naturalists viewed their “teaching” as an awareness building exercise which was often explicitly connected to the concept of biodiversity. While we expected some of the naturalists to perhaps be somewhat didactic in their approach and advocate for a relatively formal purpose to the nature walks (e.g., engaging people in “real” science) we did not detect such highbrow dispositions. One scientist expressed her view in terms of helping people recognize that they can inquire about the natural world. As a result of her amphibian tour, she hoped that:

“when they are in their backyard and they hear a bug calling or they hear a cricket calling, they think: ‘What is that? Let me go look for it.’ So many people have no concept that when you hear something and you see something, you can walk up to, you can look at it, and you can figure out what it is.”

Similarly, a naturalist who led bird walks wanted to build his audience’s appreciation for the diversity and marvels of nature:

“They had no idea there were this many different types of birds. They didn’t have any idea that they were so beautiful. And, they really are listening to a bird that they have never heard of, but actually are very common.”

Regarding the perceived benefits to the children by participating in the nature walks, the naturalists described connecting this experience to the overarching them of the BioBlitz: biodiversity. For one of the naturalists, the benefits a birder perceived took the form of improved environmental stewardship:

“The other thing about birds is the connection they have with everything else. The species problems, the habitat problems, a lot of the birds that you see here are disappearing from the face of the earth. Not just from our local area. So a lot of the education I do is trying to get people to understand [this].”

The individual who led the butterfly walk expressed similar sentiments:

“Look at the habitat around here: it is coming back slowly. I butterflied here about seven years ago and if you looked at an atlas this was bare land. We’ve just got to get new people interested and have them out there saving the habitat.”

The woman who led the amphibian tour put it this way:

“If three kids, if one kid out of this set goes away with a real good understanding of why [we need to] have diversity – biodiversity in your town and in your home, around your yard – it’s worth it. It’s worth every penny that they … it’s worth all the effort that goes into this. I think one of the things that they [i.e., the organizers] really want to show as being important, the whole point of the BioBlitz is to say: ‘Hey look, this is your backyard.’”


Multiple naturalists expressed concern about what they perceived as the public’s diminished exposure to natural environments. Therefore, they saw there participation in the BioBlitz as a mechanism to introduce people to the natural world. A botanist described his purpose in this way:

“I guess most people are completely unfamiliar with plants, especially young students. It’s really not taught in schools and people don’t go outside nearly as much as they used to. And there’s not many people around to teach kids any of the plants – what they are or where they grow. So I guess I just try to have some, try to get the students to have some experience with plants. Even if they walk away knowing one plant, it is probably one more than they knew before.”

To summarize, the naturalists, to a person, regarded the nature walks as immersion experiences. They were quite expressive about the regard they hold for simply being in nature and held onto the belief that students could become captivated by the environment through such exposure. An anecdote we found especially revealing was told this way:

“I’m always reminded that something has changed my life which was a walk I took. A man went to my school when I was about nine years old and just went to the school yard like we are right now and it was the middle of the day. I was just astonished at the things I could see that I had no idea where right around the school where we are. And, it made me much more aware.”

As it turned out, this “man” was Roger Tory Peterson who happened to live near this school. But the fame is only secondary to the story: the significance is that this awareness building event experienced by a grammar school student translated into a lifelong interest in and respect for his natural world.

Significance of Diversity

Throughout the preparations in the weeks preceding the BioBlitz, the urban setting was a constant source of conversation among the participating biologists. The headquarters for the event was a magnet middle school which was just a couple of hundred yards away from a major highway. Although the school grounds were distinguished by grasses, brush, and trees, it was just a short walk from the school to reach the banks of the Connecticut River which afforded a clear view of the city of Hartford. Whether this area should be considered wild or unkempt is an open question. Regardless, there was a distinctly urban feel to the place.

Despite the biologists accurate expectation that the urbanicity would result in lower species counts than had been made at other, more natural locations in previous years, the opportunity to engage a more urban human population was expressed as an important benefit. The host magnet school reports a 50% minority student enrollment and the BioBlitz organizers expected that this would contribute to a very diverse participation during the public hours of 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. on the Saturday of this event.

Unfortunately, the participation by students of color and their families was very sparse. In addition, most of the naturalist tours, which ranged from four to twenty participants, only rarely included children. Despite this shortcoming, we still used this event as an opportunity to explore the salience of student diversity on the naturalists’ perceptions; the deeper issue of the lack of minority participation in the BioBlitz will be a source of considerable speculation within the discussion section of this paper.

Of the half dozen tours upon which we accompanied the naturalists, only a few students of color were in attendance. From one of the researcher’s field notes we have this reflection:

“[I]n the first tour I went on, an adolescent African-American male was accompanied by a Caucasian father. While they stayed with the trip the longest out of everyone, they left halfway through to visit another event at the BioBlitz. The boy seemed restless and anxious not to miss the event which conflicted with this one, even though his father had established their early departure with the trip leader at the beginning of the trip. In a later tour, an African-American mother brought two of her daughters. They trailed behind or got ahead of the group at various times as we stopped to look at insects. Eventually, they left without having said a word to anyone. I believe they went on ahead and took a self-guided walk through the woods.”

Consequently, there was little we could use as prompts for the naturalists regarding their interactions with minority children during the nature walks. Nevertheless, when one of the researchers thought to ask the naturalist “Does it matter if they are in an urban school setting or a rural school setting in terms of what they know?” we received a somewhat unexpected response:

“It used to, but it doesn’t much anymore. Unfortunately what has happened is that they have a little chance to go outside anymore. We are shocked about how little rural kids know the environment that they are in.”

The reason this comment was surprising was that the respondent noted past differences that he perceived between rural and urban students in terms of their familiarity with nature. But he no longer feels as if he can safely assume that rural students have any more prior knowledge than do students who don’t live in the country. But aside from this insight, there was nothing revealed in the naturalist interviews that allowed us to surmise anything regarding their views about teaching science to diverse students.


The intent of this study was to use this informal science education experience as an opportunity to build upon others’ efforts to apprehend conceptions of teaching that occur at the confluence of individual’s understandings of science and their perceptions of diversity/equity issues (Bianchini, Cavazos & Rivas, 2003). However, without having minority students involved in a substantive way with this event, the best we could accomplish, which is far from acceptable, would be to speculate about how the naturalists might have acted.

Despite this shortcoming, other issues have come to mind, namely the lack of much involvement by non-white families in the BioBlitz. What began as hunches have subsequently been informed by other research along similar lines. Perhaps the most instructive was an article appearing in the Journal of Environmental Education in 1995. In their view, Lewis and James (1995) postulate that there are several misconceptions that contribute to the erroneous supposition that environmental education is not aligned with the needs and interests of a more racially and culturally diverse populace. They cite multiple studies demonstrating equitable levels of concern about threats to environmental quality even as these groups are much more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards, such as urban incinerators. Others have suggested that the apparent lack of engagement with environmental education by urban and minority populations may be a direct result of an asymmetrical emphasis upon natural settings that are decidedly rural (Agyeman, 1998). Perhaps the professional biologists, and the scientifically enthusiastic educational researchers, did not adequately appreciate these disparities.

Although we began with the question about how naturalists might interact with minority student populations, we found ourselves faced with a more profound question: What might explain the lack of diversity among the public participants in an outdoor biology event? Despite the problems we’ve expressed, the scientists were pleased to have included a more explicit educational component and have advocated for an expanded role in the next BioBlitz.


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Table 1. Interview Prompts used in Naturalist Interviews

o          How would you compare your expectations for the tour to how it actually went?

o          Are there adjustments you would make if you had the chance to do this again? Could you talk about how the kids seemed to respond to the tour: were there particular individuals who you felt were especially intrigued and interested by what you were presenting?

o          How would you describe your impressions of this as an educational activity: do you feel as if it was rewarding? frustrating? fulfilling? discouraging? Can you supply specific details that contributed to those feelings?

o          Were there any particular surprises about your audience given the location of this school and setting?

Table 2. Competing Hypotheses about the Data

a.         Perceptions of tours were that they were purely about science and diverse participants and/or the urban setting were not significant features.

b.         Naturalists acknowledged the diversity of participants and/or the urban setting but did not articulate how those influenced their instructional decision-making.

c.         Naturalists noted the diversity of participants and/or the urban setting and made an effort to adjust their instruction in response.