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Zoos and Aquariums as Informal Learning Environments for Climate Change Communication

Summary and Keywords

A great deal of learning takes place outside of the standard curriculum. School-based education is often insufficient to address climate change; many schools do little to cover the topic, perhaps out of the desire to avoid political controversy. This leaves social media, mainstream news media, and informal learning environments to cover the gap. Although social media and mainstream news media can be politically polarized, science museums, zoos, and other informal learning environments draw a broad and diverse audience, and are generally trusted by people across the political spectrum. This makes them an important location for climate change education.

Informal learning environments are settings outside traditional educational institutions in which information is communicated. Environments such as zoos and nature centers, which provide information about animals, ecology, and the natural environment, have several attributes that are important to their role in climate change communication. One significant feature is that they are social contexts, in which social interaction is both expected and encouraged. If the people who are encountering the message talk to each other about it, they can develop a shared understanding of, and response to, the content. The social experiences provide an opportunity to affirm shared values for nature, and understandings of the potential impacts of climate change.

Another key characteristic of these environments is that they have at least a minimal entertainment function along with the education function. People are required to attend formal educational settings, at least within certain parameters, but informal settings are usually optional. That means that those who run the sites have to think about ways to encourage attendance, by providing an emotionally engaging experience. The personal experience of curiosity, awe, and connection to nature can be dramatic, as can be seen by observing visitors at a zoo exhibit. Such connections can provide a powerful basis for empathy, a precursor to concern about the impacts of climate change on animals and ecosystems.

Climate literacy requires “an understanding of your influence on climate and climate’s influence on you and society” (U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), 2009, p. 4). Such an understanding can be frightening if people feel helpless. In addition to providing information about climate change, informal learning environments can do more to overcome denial. Well-constructed exhibits can promote concern through interest and engagement. But they also need to avoid a message that is too pessimistic. Beyond this, informal learning centers should take advantage of their social context. The very experience of learning about climate change in an institutional setting can empower visitors, who can feel reassured that society acknowledges the issue, cares about it, and has suggestions for effective action.

After reviewing aspects of environmental learning and the ways in which it occurs in informal settings, this chapter will present some suggestions about how zoos and other science museums can more effectively capitalize on their strengths to communicate with the public about climate change.

Keywords: informal learning, climate change, connection to nature, education, zoos, climate literacy

Climate change is an increasingly important topic of public discourse, with significant implications for species preservation, human health, and national security; but public awareness and understanding have not kept pace. Although most scientists confirm that the climate is changing and that the causes are anthropogenic (e.g., IPCC, 2014), only about 10% of Americans correctly understand the high level of scientific consensus (Leiserowitz et al., 2015), and they are certainly not taking action. In order for people to prepare themselves (through behavioral modification), their communities (through social engagement), and their societies (through policy support) to adapt to the changes that are occurring, they need a better understanding of these changes. Indeed, an understanding of climate change could be seen as a responsibility of informed citizens, or alternatively as a right that is necessary for people to be able to fully participate in global society. The United Nations considers it to be fundamental, and has been promoting climate literacy through the UN Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is working to integrate climate change into national educational curricula around the world (UNESCO, 2015).

There is no question that curriculum-based initiatives are important, not least because they can convey that a country considers the topic of climate change to be important enough to include as part of formal schooling. There is reason to believe, however, that schools are not yet successfully covering the issue. At least in the United States, public school teachers are often inadequately prepared. A 2016 paper in Science found that, although most high school science teachers in the United States include some discussion of climate change, they may repeat scientifically unsupported claims in class (Plutzer et al., 2016). In places where climate change is a politically polarized or controversial topic (e.g., in the United States, Hornsey, Harris, Bain, & Fielding, 2016; for examples in Norway, see Melrose, 2010), some teachers may attempt to teach “both sides” of what they see as a contested issue, rather than accurately describing the scientific consensus, that climate change is occurring and that it is caused by humans. This leaves social media, mainstream news media, and informal learning environments to cover the educational gap.

A great deal of learning takes place outside of the standard curriculum, and many people get their information about climate change from sources other than formal education. Young people, for example, report getting most of their environmental information from the media (Mifsud, 2012). Social media and mainstream news media can be politically polarized, however, with little overlap in audience. This is particularly problematic for contested issues such as climate change. Researchers have shown that people’s beliefs about climate change lead them to select information sources that tend to confirm those beliefs, which in turn polarize opinions further (Feldman, Myers, Hmielowski, & Leiserowitz, 2014). But zoos and aquariums draw a broad and diverse audience, and are generally trusted by people across the political spectrum to provide information about environmental topics and about climate change in particular (Falk et al., 2007; Leiserowitz & Barstow, 2010; Luebke, Clayton, Kelly, & Grajal, 2015; The Ocean Project, 2009).

It can be difficult to maintain that public perception of trust. The London Science Museum’s exhibition on climate change was tainted by politics when the oil company Shell, one of its sponsors, was revealed to have tried to influence content (Kinney, 2015). In Dallas, Texas, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science mysteriously “lost” a display panel linking fossil fuel burning to carbon emissions (Kuchment, 2014). If locations such as zoos and museums can maintain their reputation for being apolitical, however, this makes them a promising venue for more effective education about climate change.

Characteristics of Informal Learning Environments

In informal learning environments, there is no set curriculum. Learning tends to be episodic rather than continuous. Although there are occasions in which informal environments host structured educational programs, these settings typically can also be characterized as “free-choice” learning environments: places in which the learners have their own agendas, which may not be the same as those of the institution; make their own choices about pacing and sequence of exposure to information; and construct their own meanings based on an interaction between their previous knowledge and the new information (Falk, 2005). Because free-choice learning can occur anywhere, I will use the term “informal learning environment” to describe environments such as zoos and aquariums that are specifically designed to encourage user-directed learning. While zoos and aquaria can be considered a subtype of science museum, and indeed it can be hard to distinguish them, I will focus primarily on those environments that display live animals. Nature centers attached to parks are also significant sites of informal environmental education; however, because the experience at the visitor center is difficult to disentangle from the experience of the park as a whole, I will mostly leave them out of this discussion.

One significant attribute of informal learning environments is that they are social contexts, in which social interaction is both expected and encouraged. On the one hand, this could have a negative impact on learning by limiting the amount of attention people pay to the educational message (Sellman & Bogner, 2013a). Most people attend these places in the hope of having a positive day out with their friends or family, or providing educational opportunities for others (Moss, Jensen, & Gusset, 2014), and they may devote more attention to the social context and to social interactions than to informational messages. On the other hand, the social context can actually serve to reinforce the message and elaborate its significance. Packer and Ballantyne (2010) suggest that learning at zoos and aquariums is linked to talking with others. According to Falk (2005), the greater the overlap between educational, social, and work spheres in a person’s life, the more likely that person is to become a successful lifelong learner. If people who encounter an educational message talk to each other about it and incorporate it into a social interaction, they can develop a shared understanding of, and response to, the content. Conversations about the message lead to deeper processing of the information, with consequently greater likelihood that it will be retained.

Another key characteristic of these environments is that they have at least a minimal entertainment function along with the education function. Because attending informal educational settings is typically optional, these organizations have to think about methods for engaging the visitor in order to encourage attendance. One way to engage the visitor is to provide an emotional experience. Because the emotional experience of a zoo visit is predominantly positive, it rewards the visitor for making the effort to visit. The personal experience of curiosity, awe, and connection to nature can be dramatic. Such connections can provide a powerful basis for empathy, a precursor to concern about the impacts of climate change on animals and ecosystems (Myers, Saunders, & Bexell, 2009), and can motivate a desire to learn more (Clayton, Fraser, & Saunders, 2009).

Education is more than simply the delivery of information (e.g., Jaspal, Nerlich, & Cinnirella, 2014). To promote climate literacy, informal learning environments need to evoke concern, and to overcome the denial that can stand in the way of effective climate action. The social and entertainment aspects of informal learning environments can be harnessed to achieve these goals. Well-constructed exhibits can promote concern through interest and engagement. But they also need to avoid a message that is too pessimistic, because people may avoid thinking about climate change if they perceive it as hopeless (Gifford, 2011). Education that includes some component of behavioral skills training, at least at a minimal level such as recycling, saving energy, and avoiding harmful products, can contribute to a sense of self-efficacy that promotes continued engagement with the topic. Beyond this, the experience of learning about climate change in an institutional setting can empower visitors, by providing a neutral space in which they can discuss the topic with others, and by reassuring them that society acknowledges the issue, cares about it, and has suggestions for effective action.

Educational Goals in Informal Settings

Science learning is multidimensional. A consensus report from the U.S. National Research Council entitled Learning Science in Informal Environments (National Research Council, 2009) describes six “strands” of effective science learning: learners should experience excitement and interest, use scientific reasoning, observe and explore the natural and physical world, reflect on science as a way of knowing, participate in scientific activities with others, and develop an identity as someone who uses and contributes to science. In other words, affective responses, learning processes, and self-identification are an important part of the science learning process. The NRC suggests that affective engagement and self-identification as a learner of science are particularly relevant to informal learning environments.

Environmental education, more specifically, is also understood to comprise much more than merely the transmission of information. According to the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF, 2015), environmental education includes knowledge about environmental issues, motivation to make informed decisions and take action to enhance the well-being of the environment, and participation in civic life (p. 11). The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) states that environmental education “develops understanding, clarifies values, develops attitudes of concern for the environment, and develops the motivation and skills to act for the environment” (Hesselink, Goldstein, van Kempen, Garnett, & Dela, 2007, p. 16). Thus, an environmentally literate person should not just know about environmental issues but also recognize the importance of a healthy environment and get involved in actions that help to protect the environment. This suggests that education about climate change should, in addition to promoting understanding, concern itself with people’s attitudes and emotional response to the issue, and even their behavioral tendencies. In a review of relevant research, Stern, Powell, and Hill (2014) found that a number of authors emphasize empowerment, social engagement, and emotional connections as important components of environmental education programs.

In order to achieve multifaceted educational outcomes, the educational experience also has multiple components. Schwan, Grajal, and Lewalter (2014) describe science centers, museums, and zoos as incorporating several types of experiences, including cognitive experiences (encounters with new information or perspectives), object experiences (reactions to the things that are visibly presented), social experiences, and introspective experiences (combining emotional reactions with personal memories), all of which contribute to the educational experience. Whereas cognitive experiences are also foci of formal learning environments, the other categories of experience are particularly important to informal learning environments. Zoos and aquariums by very definition include object experiences: unique and vivid objects that can grab attention and arouse emotions.

Social experiences include the conversations and interactions that allow people to process the information they have encountered. Falk and Needham (2011), for example, found that 79% of adults who had visited the California Science Center with their children reported that the visit provided an opportunity for them to talk with their child about some aspect of science or technology. Social experiences can also provide an opportunity for moral education. We can distinguish between two types of education that can occur in a zoo, for example: education about the importance of healthy functioning natural ecosystems, and a moral education that stresses our responsibility to provide appropriate care for other species (Norton, in press). A broader way of thinking about moral education is to say that it conveys information about values and standards. Whereas formal education communicates the topics that society considers to be important—norms about the knowledge and behavior that are expected of a good citizen—informal education can also provide an opportunity to communicate what visitor groups, such as families, consider to be important. This communication of values can occur in the conversations that visitors have both during and after their visit. Research indicates that zoos are valued by families as a venue that allows them to communicate important values, including the importance of caring for others and social responsibility (Fraser, 2009).

Other values that can be nurtured during visits to zoos and aquariums include a shared appreciation for nature and a desire for knowledge. Indeed, a study of visitor interactions at several zoos found that a majority of the interactions among visitor groups include a simple shared acknowledgement of the animal, implicitly indicating that it is worth attending to. Positive comments about the animals were also common, as were statements directly or indirectly seeking more information (Clayton et al., 2009). In a quantitative survey, people indicated a desire to learn more about the animal and the species. This suggests that, regardless of whether information is actually being transmitted, the zoo visit is encouraging curiosity and stimulating an interest in learning.

Introspective experiences are encouraged by the free-choice nature of the learning in informal environments. Rather than following a preprogrammed itinerary, visitors are actively making decisions about what to look at next and how much to prolong the visit, and thus they are thinking about their own preferences, values, and even identities. Falk (2005) suggests that most people participate in free-choice learning to satisfy a motivation related to identity, that is, some motive related to how they see themselves. To the extent that people already see themselves as concerned about wildlife, connected to nature, and/or excited by scientific discovery, the visit can serve an important function simply by allowing them to validate and affirm those identities. Identities can be hard to maintain in the absence of social support (Zavestoski, 2003).

Some aspects of identity may even be modified by the visit; for example, people may enhance their sense of their own efficacy and involvement with science (Falk et al., 2007). Beyond this, experiences with live animals or plants have the potential to alter one’s identity by creating a feeling of connection to the animal among the visitors. This sense of connection could include a perception of similarity to the animal; an ability (or perceived ability) to take the animal’s perspective; and just an increased concern and care about the animal’s well-being (Clayton et al., 2009). Several studies have found evidence that a feeling of connection to nature is strengthened by a zoo visit (Bruni, Fraser, & Schultz, 2008; Schultz & Tabanico, 2007). For example, Schultz and Tabanico found that ratings of implicit connection to nature were significantly higher from people who were completing their zoo visit than from the same people as they were just beginning the visit. A three-year, 12-institution study commissioned by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) (Falk et al., 2007) also found that a trip to a zoo fostered in visitors a stronger feeling of connection to nature. A one-day educational intervention, focused on climate change, in a botanical garden also increased students’ feeling of connectedness, though the increase did not persist (Sellman & Bogner, 2013b). Although it is unlikely to be sufficient by itself, the feeling of connection to nature may provide a foundation for greater attention to and concern about environmental issues that can be built upon by further experiences and information.

Informal learning institutions are also conceptualized as places that can promote behavior change (Ardoin, 2009). Although over the long term, behavior change is expected to result from increased knowledge and concern about climate change, there are more direct ways to influence behavior. Simply providing information about possible behaviors can be effective, as can facilitating the formation of groups that will provide social support for behavior. The Indianapolis Zoo, for example, created a website where visitors could learn about their own carbon footprint, discuss the topic with others, and pledge to take a single action to reduce their carbon emissions; based on these actions participants reduced their carbon emissions by 15.5 million pounds between 2008 and 2011 (Stanoss, 2012). It is important to recognize that creating behavior change is complex and difficult (cf. Bamberg & Moser, 2007). But it is not impossible.

Because of the rich social and experiential context surrounding visits to informal learning environments, incorporating not only the affective and social elements described earlier, but also introspective opportunities that may encourage a change in self-perception and identity, such environments provide particularly fertile locations for educational interventions.

Learning in Zoos and Aquariums

Science and natural history museums are clearly designed as environments to foster learning. Although not everyone thinks of them in this way, zoos and aquariums (henceforth “zoos” for short) can also be considered a type of museum. Indeed, it is difficult to fully distinguish between zoos and other museums, with some science museums now including live exhibits, and some zoos associated with natural history museums. However, the emphasis on live animals and immersive, often outdoor exhibits makes zoos seem more like natural settings. Some research suggests that the emphasis on affective experiences and on fun may be stronger in a zoo than in a science center, and that the ratio of staff to visitors is lower (Fraser, Weiss, Sheppard, & Flinner, 2013).

Although they originated as menageries constructed primarily to demonstrate the prestige of their owner and to satisfy the curiosity of the viewers, zoos1 have developed into institutions with the combined missions of recreation, education, and conservation. Most accredited zoos put significant resources into educating people about animals and their needs. A review of the mission statements of 136 AZA-accredited zoos in the United States found that education was mentioned by 131 of them—more often than conservation, although all such zoos consider themselves to be conservation organizations (Patrick, Matthews, Ayers, & Tunnicliffe, 2007). Conservation education programs run by zoos and aquariums reach almost 12 million students each year (Association of Zoos and Aquariums, 2016). The educational objective of zoos previously emphasized teaching facts about animals, but it now encompasses a focus on encouraging care and concern and inspiring conservation action—a shift reflected in the name change from the Public Education Committee to the Conservation Education Committee of the AZA in 1997 (Ogden, Gentile, & Revard, 2004).

Zoos are well positioned to prompt cognitive engagement and learning. They provide an environment that at least approximates a natural setting; experiences in nature are considered to be a key part of environmental education (Stern et al., 2014). The emotionally vivid experiences with live animals can attract attention and promote retention of information (Gates & Ellis, 1999). There are a number of mechanisms through which zoos endeavor to educate their visitors. The casual visitor can learn from the educational displays that are posted around the zoo and at the animal exhibits. Increasingly, docents are available to interact with visitors in ways that range from simply answering questions to sharing and discussing physical artifacts (like fur or bones) as well as engaging in discussion of complex topics such as conservation and climate change. Live animal shows and feeding demonstrations are regularly scheduled. Auditory guides may be available for rent or download. For a more intense and immersive experience, children may have camps and sleepovers. Training is often available to adolescent volunteers as well as to adults. Off-site, zoo personnel may have traveling programs that they bring to classrooms. And most zoos have an online presence to provide additional information, perhaps including educational games or live-streaming animal cameras.

In keeping with the free-choice nature of the zoo visit, it is important to recognize that visitors come with different motivations. According to surveys of zoos in 28 countries, most visitors report having a learning agenda, although it is not always apparent to zoo staff (Roe & McConney, 2015)—perhaps because the things the visitors want to learn are not the same things that the staff is trying to convey. Based on his research, Falk (2009) described different types of museum visitors: the explorer (generally interested in discovering more about the subject and did not care whether others in their social group enjoyed the visit); the facilitator (visiting in order to satisfy the needs and desires of someone they cared about, usually their children); the professional/hobbyist (possessing a strong professional or other knowledge and interest in the topic, and motivated in learning how the information was conveyed); the experience seeker (wanted to say they had been there, or looking for experiences emblematic of the location); the recharger (visited in order to reflect, rejuvenate, or wonder); the respectful pilgrim (visiting out of a sense of obligation to the past); and the affinity seeker (motivated by a connection to their personal identity). Explorers and facilitators were the predominant motives, but more than half of respondents had multiple motivations for visiting. These motives in turn affect the learning that visitors experience based on their visit. Schultz and Joordens (2014) report that spiritual pilgrims (an earlier term formulation of “rechargers”) and experience seekers gained more knowledge about environmental issues during a visit to the Toronto Zoo than did facilitators. Falk et al. (2007) found that experience seekers were the only group to gain a significant amount of knowledge from a zoo visit.

There has been some controversy about whether zoos and other informal learning environments succeed in achieving their educational goals (e.g., Balmford et al., 2007). But positive evidence is beginning to accumulate. A comprehensive review of science learning in informal places indicates that museums and zoos play a prominent role (NRC, 2009; Schwan, Grajal, & Lewalter, 2014). Falk and Storksdieck (2010) refer to “considerable evidence” that visits to science centers, natural history museums, zoos, etc., is associated with increased science learning. Moss, Jensen, and Gusset (2014) conducted a large-scale study of learning among over 6000 visitors to 28 zoos. Based on assessing the same visitors before and after a zoo visit, the researchers were able to demonstrate a significant increase in understanding of biodiversity as well as of actions that could be taken to protect biodiversity. Sellman and Bogner (2013a) were able to demonstrate a gain in knowledge about climate change following a brief student trip to a botanical garden, and this gain persisted four to six weeks after the visit.

In one interesting approach, Falk and Needham (2011) measured the impact of a science museum not by assessing visitors’ knowledge but by measuring increased knowledge in the surrounding community. Falk and Needham were able to identify a knowledge indicator that was closely tied to an exhibit in the California Science Center, and by conducting random surveys of the Los Angeles community, showed increased understanding of science related to that specific exhibit nearly a decade after the Science Center reopened compared to an initial survey shortly after the reopening. This is a hopeful sign that learning in informal environments can disseminate into the larger community.

Moving beyond an assessment of increases in knowledge, Pearson, Dorrian, and Litchfield (2013) also considered the potential impact of that knowledge. They investigated the effectiveness of the informational component of orangutan exhibits in three Australian zoos, looking specifically at knowledge that was based on signage at each zoo. According to their study, having visited a zoo in the past 12 months was associated with greater knowledge, although a causal impact of the zoo visit could not be concluded. The researchers also found that significant proportions of their respondents, though not a majority, believed that they had learned something new about orangutans during their visit. Perceived learning is not the same as actual learning, but it is not inconsequential that visitors believe that their visits serve an educational function. Recognizing that effective education should do more than increase knowledge, Pearson et al. also assessed visitors’ intentions to act in ways that would support orangutan conservation (e.g., by donating to conservation organizations or avoiding products associated with the depletion of an orangutan habitat). Although knowledge scores of the visitors in this study were not directly related to behavioral intentions, knowledge scores were associated with more positive attitudes toward orangutans, which in turn were related to behavioral intentions.

The complex relationship between knowledge and action is beyond the scope of this chapter. (See Ardoin, 2009; Clayton & Myers, 2015). It is worth noting the conclusion of Moss, Jensen, and Gusset in a 2016 paper examining zoo visitors’ understanding of biodiversity and their conservation behavior: knowledge is a significant, but relatively minor, factor in determining whether people will actually engage in conservation behavior. However, as noted above, education comprises a broad spectrum of personal changes, and learning experiences have a valuable impact on many dimensions. Increases in science learning, for example, were found by Kisiel, Rowe, Vartabedian, and Kopczak (2012), whose observations of families interacting with marine animals at a touch-tank exhibit showed that they were not just acquiring new information, but actively using scientific reasoning, such as making predictions, testing claims, and supporting or refuting hypotheses.

In keeping with a broad definition of environmental literacy that includes knowledge, concern, and behavioral engagement, zoos emphasize a range of themes as part of their educational mission. Their mission statements, according to the study described earlier, include not only the communication of information and creation of understanding, but also what Patrick et al. (2007) describe as “affective education”—inspiring and motivating people to appreciate nature—and even some type of conservation advocacy. Thus it is particularly important that zoos seem to contribute to visitors’ belief that they can make a positive difference for conservation, or self-efficacy (Falk et al., 2007). Self-efficacy with regard to environmental change is one of the best predictors of engagement in sustainable behavior (e.g., Bamberg & Moser, 2007). When education in zoos has been successful, visitors will know more about the topic, care more about it, do more about it, and have a changed conception of themselves as people engaged with the issue.

Climate Change Education in Informal Environments

Climate change is an ideal topic to promote science literacy. It is highly visible in the media; it is politically contested; and it has implications for human well-being. These characteristics serve to increase curiosity, not just about the topic, but also about the nature of the evidence: how it was collected and whether it can be trusted (Pellegrino, 2012). Thus exhibits about climate change can do more than improve understanding; they could change people’s attitudes about science.

One of the reasons climate change has not elicited as much public concern as it merits may be that it seems too remote and abstract. Zoos may be particularly well suited to make the topic seem more relevant, by providing visitors with direct experiences of “animal ambassadors” whose species are already experiencing negative impacts of climate change. To some extent, the public expects to encounter messages about environmental challenges such as climate change during a zoo visit. In a 2009 survey of 908 visitors to three zoos and aquariums in the American Northwest, almost half (42–47%) agreed that they expected to learn about climate change during their visit. Notably, visitors to the Oregon Zoo, which had already implemented extensive messaging about climate change, showed the highest level of agreement among institutions. People who visited the zoo more frequently were also likely to show greater agreement (Northwest Zoo and Aquarium Alliance, 2011). Thus, their experiences at the zoo had led them to understand it as a place for climate change education.

The social experiences in informal environments also provide an opportunity to affirm shared understandings of the significance of climate change. A study of over 7000 visitors at 15 zoos and aquariums in the United States explored the attitudes of zoo visitors toward climate change, and investigated the impacts of a supportive social context and an emotional connection to animals. Visitors who reported feeling a sense of connection to nature or to the animals they saw at the zoo reported stronger cognitive and emotional responses to climate change (Clayton, Luebke, Saunders, Matiasek, & Grajal, 2014). They were more likely to have thought about global warming and to believe that it was occurring, knew more about the potential consequences, and showed more interest in the topic. Importantly, this sense of connection was also positively correlated with their self-reported tendency to take action to address climate change, for example, through changing consumption habits or signing a petition. Visitors who believed that climate change was occurring also were more likely to say that the majority of their friends shared their belief, indicating that they had more social support than those who denied climate change. Similar results have been found among South American zoo visitors (Luebke, Clayton, Kelly, & Grajal, 2015).

As stated above, zoos are already committed to conservation education. To a large extent, zoos have recognized that their focus on conservation of species requires attention to climate change and the way in which it will affect habitats. Thus effective conservation education must also incorporate information about climate change. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) created a task force on climate change in 2009, and subsequently adopted a position statement that says in part:

WAZA institutions recognize the urgency of, and commit to reducing their carbon footprint and addressing climate change issues through their business practices, institutional culture, conservation and research programs. WAZA institutions also recognize the urgency of conveying the threat issues and response imperatives highlighted in this statement through their education and training programmes and community engagement initiatives.

In 2012, they approved an emergency resolution that called for member institutions to “Prioritise awareness raising and visitor engagement focus on these threat and response issues.”

The organization has since created a variety of resources, including background information about climate change, a guide to “green” practices, and a list of the ways in which zoos can get involved in addressing climate change. This list includes providing a repository and resource for accurate research about climate change; a variety of activities designed to protect animal and plant species from the effects of climate change; serving as an exemplar of sustainability practices; and, most relevant to this chapter, communicating with the public and raising awareness about climate change.

Some zoos have already developed innovative ways of engaging their visitors with the topic of climate change. The trustees of the Indianapolis Zoo passed a resolution requiring the zoo’s staff to develop and implement programs that would raise awareness of regional impacts of climate change, leading them to create a website for the public to learn about and discuss their own carbon emissions (Stanoss, 2012). At the San Diego Zoo, a three-story carbon graph structure at Polar Bear Plunge displays the levels of CO2 over hundreds of years, showing the relationship between human use of fossil fuels and rising CO2 concentrations. The chart also shows what the level is now, and what it needs to be to slow climate change. A formal evaluation of the Polar Bear Plunge game (Ebel, Grant, & Rattan, 2011) revealed that children demonstrated increased knowledge about climate change.

A number of networks have emerged in order to facilitate ways for zoos to engage with the public and with policy-makers about climate change. One such network is the Climate Literacy Zoo Education Network (CliZEN), which produced a 2012 volume, Climate Change Education: A Primer for Zoos and Aquariums (Grajal & Goldman, eds.). This volume provides information about climate change and effective messaging techniques, and gives examples of some of the educational programs that zoos have already instituted. Another program is the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation, or NNOCCI. NNOCCI is a collaborative effort among zoos and aquariums designed to establish a national network of professionals who are skilled at communicating about climate change. It conducts short courses and workshops, primarily for people with conservation organizations. Preliminary evaluation of the program has shown that visitors to zoos and aquariums that had a NNOCCI program in place indicated greater concern about climate change (Swim, Fraser, & Geiger, 2014).

Given that zoos are expected to attract and entertain as well as educate their visitors, a legitimate concern could be raised about the possibility that education about climate change could sadden visitors or even deter them from visiting the zoo. The American Museum of Natural History, for example, was criticized for a climate change exhibition that was seen as “too apocalyptic” (Kinney, 2015). Esson and Moss (2013) reported responses to a photographic exhibit at the Chester Zoo that included a focus on climate change, along with other environmental problems. Researchers evaluated comments voluntarily left by visitors, as well as making observations of over 200 visitors as they viewed the exhibit. Although there were some negative responses, positive responses were more common and included personal reflections, comments on children’s perceptions, and general comments about the environment. In general, visitors seem to have valued the opportunity. Another study conducted among visitors to two science centers asked them to describe messaging preferences for a future exhibit on climate change. The visitors recommended that the exhibit highlight the impacts of climate change first, in order to create concern, then discuss the scientific understanding of climate change, and finish with a discussion of what could be done to address the problem (Koepfler, Heimlich, & Yocco, 2010). This approach satisfies the need to convey worry and urgency while still allowing people to feel a sense of self-efficacy and optimism.

Designing Effective Exhibits

I have emphasized the social context and the individual motivations associated with a visit. As Schwan et al. (2014) note, however, zoos and museums also constitute a specific type of physical context. This is important because the physical environment can be thoughtfully considered and deliberately designed to maximize the educational impact. Simply visiting a zoo or other informal learning institution does not guarantee a learning outcome. For one thing, relevant information must be available. Moss et al. (2014) found that visitors who reported encountering information about biodiversity during their visit showed greater gains in knowledge (not surprisingly); however, nearly half of their 6000+ participants did not report encountering any such information. With regard to climate change, it is likely that many zoos do not currently provide informational displays about the topic. Zoos that want to proclaim that they are in the business of environmental education must take seriously their responsibility to present information about climate change.

The principal means of providing visitors with information has been informational signs, which have the potential to reach a much larger audience than the more specialized docent encounters, animal shows, etc. Typically, these signs have not been very effective. Research suggests that visitors spend very little time reading signs; Clayton et al. (2009), for example, found that only 27% of zoo visitors were observed to look at the exhibit signs. The proportion varied dramatically by exhibit, however, from a low of 8% to a high of 71%, suggesting that the right kind of sign can attract an audience. With the help of information based on psychological and educational research, zoos have begun to emphasize more engaging graphics.

The information on the signs also deserves consideration. They were first intended to provide scientific information about a species; after zoos more fully embraced their role as conservation educators, the signs were often pedantic and depressing descriptions of the threats faced by a species (Lyons, Moher, & Slattery, 2012; Routman, Ogden, & Winsten, 2010). To promote engagement, visitors need a more positive and interesting message. A message that is too negative about the impacts of climate change can lead visitors to tune out, though one that is not negative enough may not arouse sufficient concern (Gifford, 2011). Messages should also be framed in a way that is compatible with the values of the visitor, which may vary. As part of the Northwest Zoo and Aquarium Alliance survey (2011), 268 visitors were asked to select the two statements about climate change from a list of seven that they found most compelling. Overall, statements that made reference to the interdependence of life, future generations, stewardship, and responsibility were rated most positively. Although some visitors liked appeals to national interest, a far greater proportion of the respondents actively disliked this appeal.

In keeping with the goal of encouraging visitors to feel a sense of connection, signs can include a more emotional or narrative approach, personalizing the animals and telling stories about them. Signs with a storyline and a mystery or a problem resolution are more cognitively involving (DeYoung & Monroe, 1996). Signs that encourage the visitor to think about the animals as individuals are likely to encourage anthropomorphism, which can have positive effects on attention, concern, and sustainable behavior (Tam, Lee, & Chao, 2013). An example of such personalization can be found on the Wild Research website run by a consortium of zoos, which encourages visitors to think about the personalities of the individual gorillas and to compare the playfulness and aggression of gorillas with, respectively, first graders and high school girls (My Wild Site).

Visitors also need to be informed about what they can do to address climate change. In several large-scale surveys of zoo visitors, a significant proportion said they would like to do more, but did not know what actions would be effective (Clayton et al., 2014; Luebke et al., 2015). This is an area where zoos in particular have the potential to do much more to increase visitors’ awareness. An important indirect outcome should be an increased perception of self-efficacy, which as noted above is an important predictor of pro-environmental behavior. Clayton, Prevot, and Germain (2014), for example, found that a zoo visit increased both knowledge about threats to biodiversity and belief in one’s own ability to take action to protect biodiversity; only the latter, however, was significantly associated with intent to engage in such actions.

Moving beyond signage, there are important ways for exhibits to actively involve the visitor. At the Teknisk Museum in Norway, visitors put on boots and wade through 6 inches of water on the floor in order to prompt them to think about the impact of sea level rise (Kahn, 2015). Interactive exhibits engage visitors’ attention, increasing the likelihood that they will remain at the exhibit longer and absorb more information (Routman et al., 2010). Similarly, Waller, Peirce, Mitchell, and Micheletta (2012) found that visitors appeared to be more engaged by a primate exhibit when there was a scientist present who was working with the primates; visitors were more likely to approach the exhibit and showed greater awareness of the animals’ conservation needs in the presence of the scientist. Zoos should think creatively to find ways to involve visitors, having them make observations, raise hypotheses, and answer questions. To become educated about climate change, visitors need to have opportunities to get involved and participate in the process of collecting and applying information, even if only by answering questions posed by a sign (NRC, 2009).

The design of the exhibit as well as the educational displays can make a significant difference. In general, zoo visitors seem to prefer and have a more positive emotional response to naturalistic enclosures (Ballantyne, Packer, Hughes, & Dierking, 2007; Routman et al., 2010). They also want to be able to see the animals. Powell and Bullock (2014) found that more active animals, and particularly a diversity of behaviors, fostered positive emotional responses from visitors, which in turn promoted free-choice learning. Their results suggest that animal enrichment can be utilized to promote a wider range of animal behaviors and thus enhance the educational impact of the zoo visit.

Advances in technology have also opened up new opportunities to engage visitors. In some cases, flashy high-tech exhibits have turned out to have more costs than benefits (Routman et al., 2010). But there are some promising directions, and new avenues are sure to be explored. In a study looking at a variety of technological innovations, Yocco et al. (2011) found that visitors responded more positively to an exhibit-based app than to a website that allowed them to record their own observations, and that a computer kiosk offering several different activities (e.g., design a poster, create a profile) enhanced stay time at the exhibit. Notably, some visitors indicated that they felt technology was inappropriate at the zoo, stating in response to the computer kiosk, “I didn’t bring my kids here to watch TV.” However, visitors using the app were observed to be sharing the phone with each other and engaging in conversations that were prompted by the app. With regard to learning, Green, Conkey, and Challoo (2015) investigated the impact of an augmented-reality iPad app at two exhibits in a Texas zoo, and found a positive impact on learning among adult visitors. Interestingly, there was no significant impact on satisfaction with the visit, suggesting that the animals were still the main attraction.

The key for incorporating technology into the visit experience will be to make sure it complements the strengths of a zoo or museum rather than supplementing them. Technology that encourages close attention to the live animal, and that enhances social interaction around the topic of the display, is likely to be most effective. Some technology, such as auditory information delivered through headphones, can serve to isolate people, but other approaches can provide a way for people to engage with their companions. Based on visitor responses as well as the potential costs of upkeep for kiosks, apps may be a preferable use of technology (Lyons et al., 2012). Downloadable apps can engage visitors, for example, by asking them to generate their own information through careful attention to the animals.

In designing exhibits, it is important to know the audience and frame the message in a way that is consistent with their own knowledge and values (Routman et al., 2010). In general, research indicates that visitors to conservation-themed exhibits are likely to already be more knowledgeable and concerned about environmental topics than the general public (Ballantyne et al., 2007). Koepfler et al. (2010), for example, found that visitors to science centers were able to discuss the topic of climate change in an informed way. A large national survey of U.S. zoo visitors (Kelly et al., 2014) showed that they were more likely than the general public to show alarm and concern about climate change; a survey at seven South American zoos showed that approximately 95% thought that climate change was happening (Luebke et al., 2015). This suggests that zoos need to spend less time trying to convince the visitors that environmental problems are real, and more time describing possible solutions (Ballantyne et al., 2007).

However, they should also be mindful of the age of the audience and present information that is meaningful and empowering to children. At a typical zoo, the average visitor may be too young to cope with an overly frightening message about climate change, whereas an exhibit designed for older children at a science center may incorporate more of the scary facts. Exhibits may also be designed in a way that they provide multiple levels of information, so that visitors with different levels of knowledge and cognitive development can find the best information to create appropriate meaning for themselves.

Teaching about climate change requires that institutions move beyond an emphasis on individual species to present a more complex account of habitats and ecosystems. This will help visitors not only to acquire specific information, but also to learn about the science that underlies any discussion of climate change. Zoos have already begun to move in the direction of more naturalistic enclosures, situating the animal within a specific habitat, but they need to also provide the informational content that will allow visitors to understand the interdependence among various plant and animal communities, stressing the connections between species and ecosystems. This will give visitors a greater ability to understand how climate change will exert its effects, as well as the possible actions that can mitigate it. People need to understand not just how the climate is changing and how it will impact them, but also the ways in which their own actions are contributing.

Informal learning environments should define their educational goals in a way that is consistent with the strands of science learning described above. This means, in addition to providing scientific information about climate change, they should provide experiences that get visitors interested in the topic (e.g., through animal displays); engage them in scientific practice (e.g., through interactive exhibits); encourage them to think about the nature of the scientific process (e.g., by discussing the nature of the evidence); and promote opportunities for visitors to define themselves as scientific learners. To the extent that visitors “develop an identity as someone who knows about, uses, and sometimes contributes to science” (NRC, 2009, p. 4), their visit to the zoo or museum is likely to have a lasting impact on the way in which they engage with new information about climate change.

Integrating the Experience

Although educational assessment is often based on immediate outcomes of short-term experiences, such as a single visit to a museum, learning should be more accurately understood as a process rather than a sudden change. Falk (2005) suggests that we think about the education infrastructure: the interactions between formal education and broader, free-choice learning opportunities. With regard to a specific topic such as climate change, this requires us to consider the variety of ways in which people are exposed to information and misinformation about the topic. The information about climate change that visitors encounter in zoos and other informal learning environments will be part of an ongoing chain of experiences with the topic; it will be integrated with previous information as well as with information that is subsequently received from both formal and informal institutions.

As stated above, visitors are likely to already have some information about climate change before a visit to an informal learning institution, and in fact they are likely to be better informed about the topic than the average person. However, climate change is intensely polarized, and visitors may face a skeptical audience if they try to communicate with their friends about the topic. Given the skepticism that many people show toward climate change, can informal learning environments provide an educational experience with lasting impact? A study by van der Linden et al. (2016) provides one source of optimism. Using a national sample, they were able to effectively increase people’s awareness of the scientific consensus about climate change; moreover, this change in perception of what scientists think was associated with change in personal belief in climate change and with support for action to address it. This was even true among people who had low social support for those beliefs or who received most of their information from conservative news sources. Although the study did not follow up the sample to evaluate the lasting impact of the informational message, it did suggest that accurate information can trump preexisting “educational” experiences that cast doubt on the existence and causes of climate change.

Increasingly, zoos are developing innovative ways to extend the boundaries of the experience beyond a single visit. For example, they can extend the temporal boundaries of the visit. Among informal environmental education institutions, zoos are more likely to get repeat visits (Falk, Heimlich, & Foutz, 2009). This means that they can think about ways to scaffold the education, building people’s understanding over time as they gradually encounter more complex and sophisticated information. Repeated exposure to evidence and concepts allows people to take in more information over time as their comprehension develops. It also allows for the development of social norms. Beliefs about the values and behavior of others are some of the most powerful influences on behavior. When people repeatedly visit environments in which other people’s concerns about the natural environment and climate change are evident, that can encourage them to demonstrate the same concern. This is one reason why it is important for zoos and museums to “walk the talk” by implementing sustainable practices (as advised by the WAZA), and communicating these practices to their visitors: it demonstrates the values that are held by the members of the zoo staff, and the way in which those values guide their behavior.

The spatial boundaries of a visit can also be extended, by connecting with other local institutions. Zoos and science museums can serve as a resource for the whole community, providing opportunities for learning and engagement with local school systems, and potentially establishing social networks that construct ongoing opportunities for observations and discussions that are relevant to the topic of climate change. The Chicago Zoological Society and the Chicago Botanic Garden participate in a network of organizations including nonprofits, government agencies, and educational institutions whose goal is to “increase knowledge, leadership, and engagement in climate action among diverse communities by building on local assets and community life” by incorporating climate education into their programming. Woodland Park Zoo, the Seattle Aquarium, and the Pacific Science Center jointly run the Seattle Youth Climate Action Network to provide teens with education and skills to address climate change in their communities. The Oregon Zoo collaborates with climate scientists through its partnership with Polar Bears International, and highlights this research for the general public through its exhibits and its website.

They may also be able to help visitors feel a greater sense of connection to the geographic location in which they live. Many zoos provide information about local conservation issues and actions that visitors can take to protect local ecosystems. The Baltimore Aquarium, for example, links exhibits as well as local field activities to the conservation of the nearby Chesapeake Bay. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a founding member of a geotourism initiative that focuses on the biodiversity of the Sonora desert and invites members of the public to share their own photos of the spot. Emphasizing local ecosystems is a promising direction for zoos and similar institutions; place-based education may foster place attachment, and there is research evidence suggesting that attachment to local landscapes is associated with greater concern about climate change (Schweizer, Davis, & Thompson, 2013).


While recreational encounters with the natural world are decreasing (Pergams & Zaradic, 2008), attendance at zoos remains hugely popular. Modern accredited zoos and aquariums attract very large audiences, estimated conservatively at 700 million visits annually worldwide (Gusset & Dick, 2011). Zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), predominantly in North America, receive about 180 million separate visitors annually. This indicates that people are interested in, and care about, the natural world; and it provides an opportunity to reach a wide audience with information about climate change that is not filtered through a political, or just politically cautious, lens.

Zoos and other science museums all extract things from their natural contexts in order to display them to visitors. In doing so, they assign value to the displays, indicating that they are worth attending to and suggesting that learning about the exhibits is a part of our cultural or even human patrimony. Despite increasingly sophisticated attempts to design exhibits that show animals in their natural contexts, putting things on display also introduces an interpretive gap between the thing and its interpretation. This gap is where exhibit designers make their decisions about how things should be presented to the public. Although there is a downside to this gap, which arguably limits our true understanding of the thing being displayed, this also creates an opportunity to tell a larger story. Climate change is a concept that can benefit from this opportunity. It’s not something that can be understood by looking at any single object or animal; it’s an overarching narrative whose understanding can be enhanced by new perspectives gained from each exhibit.

In order to effectively communicate about climate change, zoos and their fellow informal learning institutions must recognize their ability and obligation to do more than provide information about individual exhibits. They can find ways to create a broader understanding of climate change by weaving together aspects of the entire visit experience, even extending beyond the visit to have an ongoing influence on the way people seek out and interpret new information about climate change. They can do this by building on their strengths: vivid, emotionally resonant experiences that take place in a social context that can emphasize and amplify informational content. As Norton (in press) has stated, zoos can be “gateway” institutions that can build on the intrinsic interest in animals among visitors who are not very environmentally aware, potentially leading those visitors to become more informed, concerned, and involved in addressing threats to the environment. By integrating accurate scientific information, emotionally rich exhibits, social connections, behavioral recommendations, and connections to local place, these informal learning environments can help to create a citizenry that is not only better informed but more engaged with the topic of climate change.

Further Reading

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    Falk, J. H. (2005). Free-choice environmental learning: Framing the discussion. Environmental Education Research, 11, 265–280.Find this resource:

      Grajal, A., & Goldman, S. (Eds.). (2012). Climate change education: A primer for zoos and aquariums. Chicago: Chicago Zoological Society.Find this resource:

        Routman, E., Ogden, J., & Winsten, K. (2010). Visitors, conservation learning, and the design of zoo and aquarium experiences. In D. Kleiman, K. Thompson, & C. K. Baer (Eds.), Wild mammals in captivity: Principles and techniques (2d ed., pp 134–150). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

          Schwan, S., Grajal, A., & Lewalter, D. (2014). Understanding and engagement in places of science experience: Science museums, science centers, zoos, and aquariums. Educational Psychologist, 49, 70–85.Find this resource:


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                                                                                                                                                                  (1.) When speaking of zoos, I am referring to professionally managed organizations and not to the small, unaccredited menageries that still exist purely to entertain visitors.