Engaging Environments and Earthwatch: finding a shared language

Graphic with the quote: "We may see a question about environmental science as straightforward, but not all individuals understand immediately what we mean when we use this term."

How can we talk about environmental science in a more engaging and inclusive way? The first post in a blog series about the Engaging Environments project in Birmingham written by our former Community Engagement Officer, Rob Tilling.

A few weeks ago I spoke with John*. I asked John about environmental science and how it could link with his view of the green space activities he carries out with me.

His answers to me were really not what I had expected to receive; he was far less familiar with the term “environmental science” than I had thought. In fact, it took John at least an hour to come back to me with something like a response, and that response was in the form of a question: “Do you mean ecology?”

There was an understanding, but I had failed to make it easy to interpret my line of questioning. I had failed to choose the right wording to elicit anything even close to the responses I had sought. Following on from the realisation that we could perhaps be interested in ecology and ecological processes, John then went on to speak at length about his ecological knowledge, beliefs, philosophies, fears and attempts to “heal” the world we live in. John was in fact very well-versed in his understanding of environmental science and had already produced a manifesto relating to the work we can do as a society to repair damage caused to our environment by human activities. “Why do you use such difficult words,” the volunteer questioned. We may see a question about environmental science as straightforward, but not all individuals understand immediately what we mean when we use this term.

Graphic with the quote: "We may see a question about environmental science as straightforward, but not all individuals understand immediately what we mean when we use this term."

This conversation was not unusual, and bore some similarities with another volunteer’s comments when asked about a question relating to science and green space work. In this volunteer’s opinion, we do a great deal of science together, in that we are carrying out a vast array of activities that “could” be used as starting points for some research. The word “research”, however, was not being used. The word research is absent from these conversations. It would seem that people understand that there are a wide range of sciences and that they generate answers, but the idea of being part of the “question writing” part of the process was not raised.

Asking people how they want to contribute to the scientific process can be a very difficult thing to do. People do not anticipate such questions and they do not have ready answers. When pushed, some people do seem to be able to suggest some aspects of environmental science that may interest them. These areas tend to be very visible; for example, the spotting, identifying and recording of animals and looking at pollution levels in watercourses. Without a checklist of ideas to illustrate the realm of environmental science in its entirety, people struggle to think broadly.

*name has been changed to protect anonymity

This blog is part of a series of vignettes written by our former Community Engagement Officer, Rob Tilling. Rob shares his experiences and encounters with different volunteers who took part in our NERC-funded ‘Engaging Environments’ project in Birmingham. Rob established a series of locations – allotments, areas of council land and neglected green spaces, where people can come together and undertake practical tasks which are good for wildlife and nature but also for their own wellbeing. In line with the mission of Naturehood, the aim is to inspire people to take action for wildlife in their own gardens and green spaces.