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Guest Post - Conservation Leadership Impact Measures

By: Kate Hagner (SCA), Amy K. Syvertsen, Ph.D. (Search Institute), Theresa K. Sullivan, Ed.D. (Search Institute)

In June, CIRCLE launched a new initiative to connect research and practice by hosting conversations fueled by views from the field. We were thrilled by the response to our first call for interest on guest posts about impact measures. Below is the second post in this series, which will include perspectives from researchers and practitioners during the fall. The first post can be found here. Please join us on Twitter and Facebook to discuss the content and implications, and keep an eye out for future posts and a culminating event for this series.

In 1955, a student at Vassar College read an article in Harper’s Magazine written by historian Bernard DeVoto that described the deplorable condition of America’s national parks: understaffed, underresourced, and increasingly being “loved to death” by post-World War II visitors.

In response, that budding conservationist, Elizabeth (Cushman) Titus Putnam, – developed an idea for a modern-day Civilian Conservation Corps that would mobilize young people to perform natural resource conservation work on public lands. Two years later, a concept that started as a senior thesis became a reality when the young Putnam founded the organization now known as Student Conservation Association (SCA), which continues to fulfill her vision today.

For the past three years SCA has engaged in a multiyear partnership with Search Institute, a research-to-practice organization. This partnership has helped SCA better understand how conservation leadership develops in SCA participants while building its capacity to deliver the kinds of experiences that effectively and consistently position young people to plan, act, and lead.

To understand how conservation leadership unfolds in the lives of SCA participants, we launched a comprehensive qualitative investigation. After many hours of qualitative inquiry, a multidimensional developmental model of conservation leadership emerged. Our analysis suggested that young people entered their SCA experiences with varying levels of conservation leadership, but all made progress (positive developmental change) from their initial point of entry. The developmental model of conservation leadership included several important themes, from becoming comfortable being in nature and a sense of responsibility to protect it, to influencing others and exploring conservation careers.

Compelled by the opportunity to demonstrate the impact of SCA experiences on young people’s conservation leadership, Search Institute and SCA embarked on an effort to create a simple quantitative metric. Drawing heavily from the earlier qualitative research phase and the words of SCA’s own participants, a 29-item pre- and post-test conservation leadership self-assessment was developed. This multidimensional construct consists of nine sub-constructs, including:

  • Conservation awareness: notice the surrounding natural environment and think about how actions affect nature;
  • Connectedness to nature: recognize benefits and/or a greater sense of self from time in nature;
  • Environmental responsibility: believe in a responsibility to take action to care for the environment and notice and correct problems;
  • Conservation action: conserve resources and minimize impact in nature for the benefit of the environment;
  • Critical analysis of environmental issues: listen to others’ ideas about environmental issues, including challenging ideas, and question whether actions others take for the environment are truly beneficial;
  • Conservation cultivation: challenge peers who harm the environment and teach others about the importance of conservation;
  • Conservation expertise: knowledgeable of conservation issues and solutions;
  • Leveraged conservation action: interest in finding new ways to protect the environment and collaborate with others to solve challenges;
  • Exploration of conservation careers: understand and take interest in careers in the conservation field.

An initial version of the Conservation Leadership measures was piloted with a sample of 693 high school students who participated in SCA programs during the summer of 2014. The measures were subsequently refined for parsimony, clarity, and to improve psychometric properties. Search Institute is currently analyzing data from this refined developmental model of Conservation Leadership with a national sample of SCA participants in high school through early adulthood. Data were collected from pre- and post-tests administered before and after program experiences that range in length from one month to one year.

What emerges from the data is a complex picture of conservation leadership with rich developmental nuance. For example, our initial hypothesis was that comfort in nature was an essential developmental milestone toward Conservation Leadership, yet the qualitative and quantitative data have revealed profiles of participants who still aren’t completely sold on the outdoors, with its “bugs and dirt,” but nevertheless have changed attitudes about the importance of protecting those places. They don’t necessarily want to hang out with the bugs.  But they know that “bugs” play an important role in ecology.

The Conservation Leadership measures have been exciting to SCA because of the potential to inform how it designs and delivers programs that positively impact the civic and developmental trajectories of young people. A strength of this project is the partnership between research and practice. We didn’t set out to create Conservation Leadership measures; we set out to better understand how one program was working, and a broader research agenda emerged from the provocative early findings. Research has brought rigor to the process of understanding and building upon what’s effective at SCA, The more practitioners can understand how conservation leadership develops, the more effective they can be in creating experiences that ignite the conservation leader in the young people they work with. And with more conservation leaders out there in the world, more work will get done to preserve and protect it.

The process of creating these Conservation Leadership measures has also already helped SCA in other ways. It has expanded SCA’s view of conservation leadership, with Putnam’s story now representing something greater: the potential of all young people to create their own story of what it means to be a conservation leader.

If you’re interested in reviewing the full Conservation Leadership measures, please contact Kate Hagner at SCA,