Research Program Feature
Spending time in nature provides numerous physical, social, and psychological benefits. However, increasing urbanization has created a growing disconnect between people and the natural world. A personal connection is important because it can not only change how people experience and perceive nature but also foster the desire to care for those natural spaces.
At The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, we view building meaningful connections with nature as a chief conservation strategy. Environmental interpretation, a process of facilitating intellectual and emotional connections to a resource, is the conduit for creating these connections.
Dr. Rob Dussler, chief education officer for the Meadows Center, directs and designs nature experiences for the center’s education program, which engages more than 120,000 visitors each year through interpreter-led field trips and tours at Spring Lake. The program trains and employs a team of Texas State students to serve as environmental interpreters and to lead these nature experiences. The goal of the program is to connect faculty, staff, students, and the general public to the San Marcos Springs through interpretive programs that emphasize ecological, cultural, and historical knowledge as well as personal meaning.
Environmental interpretation has long been recognized as a powerful tool for building long-lasting, purposeful nature connections. Likewise, practicing mindfulness while in nature and being fully present in the moment can increase one’s ability to create these connections. While there are ample studies about mindfulness and nature connectedness, few studies have researched the relationship between mindfulness and environmental interpretation.
To explore this relationship, Dr. Dussler teamed up with Dr. Anthony Deringer, assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance, who has expertise in mindfulness and in researching how outdoor experiences can create positive ecological behavior. They embarked on a collaborative study to investigate the value of incorporating mindfulness training in interpreter development programs and the practice of interpretation.
Using a qualitative design and participation from Meadows Center student environmental interpreters, they examine how mindfulness practices contribute to the quality and effectiveness of environmental interpretation. Over four weeks, they conducted mindfulness trainings with the students to provide a foundation of the concept and practice of mindfulness. The trainings were followed with opportunities for reflection, storytelling, sharing thoughts, drawings, and discoveries. Dr. Dussler and Dr. Deringer collected data through in-depth interviews and discussions with participants.
Two themes emerged from their research that suggest practicing mindfulness had a positive impact on participants. The most common theme was that mindfulness helped participants be more engaged and aware of the natural world around them. The second theme was that mindfulness created more authentic interpretive experiences for participants.
Increased awareness and engagement also made the students better interpreters. For example, interpreters reported noticing new wildlife and having novel nature experiences in areas of Spring Lake that they had visited many times during previous programming. Interpreters reported an excitement to share their newfound discoveries with visitors to Spring Lake and employ mindfulness techniques to promote these nature connections. Results from the study illustrate the importance of creating intentional spaces within educational programs to slow down and be more immersive, allowing for new opportunities to connect with the natural world. To learn more about this study, read our article published in Volume 25 of the Journal of Interpretation Research.
Future research interests for Dr. Dussler and Dr. Deringer include the development of a specific mindfulness nature program to be offered within the Meadows Center, based on the findings of this study, and further investigation of the experience of interpreters and participants in the program.
Their work also resulted in a newfound research partnership between the Department of Health and Human Performance and the Meadows Center, which has led to more than $90,000 of funding for collaborative projects from grants such as the Texas Parks & Wildlife Community Outdoor Outreach Program.
The Meadows Center’s location on Spring Lake, one of the most prolific freshwater artesian springs in the country, offers a living laboratory for faculty and staff across campus to conduct applied research on a variety of topics. That research includes the Ingram School of Engineering testing a data-logging buoy to sample water quality metrics and monitor climate change; the Department of Biology studying social structures of the black-crested titmouse; and the Department of Geography examining school children’s expressions of nature through map-making. Additionally, with more than 30,000 K-12 grade students participating in environmental education at Spring Lake each year, the Meadows Center is an ideal location for studying the efficacy and impact of experiential educational programs and techniques.
To explore opportunities for conducting research at Spring Lake, please contact the Meadows Center’s Research Coordinator, Ryan Spencer, at firstname.lastname@example.org.