UA Student Team Helps Improve Biosphere 2 Experience

“What kinds of things do you think you might be able to see and do during your visit to Biosphere 2?”

Starting with this single visitor survey question, Elisabeth Roberts and Matthew Wenger, College of Education doctoral students and Earth Education Research and Evaluation (EERE) Team members, set out to help re-vamp the Biosphere 2 visitor experience. Their goal was to learn from visitors how to make visits more engaging, more educational and more relevant to life on the planet outside the glass.

Originally built in the 1980s to research and develop self-sustaining space-colonization technology, Biosphere 2 was acquired by the UA in 2007 and today serves as a large-scale scientific research laboratory. The facility not only houses cutting edge research, but offers an unmatched tool for educating the general public about the planet Earth and its ecological systems.

Last year, Biosphere 2 leadership not only knew that their organization needed to improve. Being well-connected to the UA, they also knew that the EERE Team at the College of Education’s Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies department could help. After just two meetings to discuss the arrangements, the real collaborative work began in the fall of 2009.

The EERE Team, led by Associate Professor Bruce Johnson, conducts research on the development of ecological understandings, environmental perceptions, and environmental actions. They also offer evaluation services to centers that provide earth education programs.

Says team member Roberts, “We figure out what’s needed and how to get the answers. It’s applied research, not theory. We get the data to help people make decisions.”

Their goal was to evaluate Biosphere 2’s public outreach and tour design, study the visitor experience, and use that data to help the staff develop better visitor tour programs, improve outreach efforts, design new exhibits, and increase public understanding of ongoing research.

Roberts and the five-person team knew that success would depend on much more than the results of visitor focus groups. They took a big-picture view that would examine internal staff perspectives as well as external perceptions, and focus on developing strategies around where those visions intersect. Starting internally, they talked with a group that included Director Travis Huxman, Sustainability Director Nathan Allen and other senior staff, as well as eight tour guides. They asked questions like: What perspectives did the staff members have in common when it came to a vision for education and outreach? Where did they differ? Through this process, the team helped the Biosphere 2 staff develop a clear picture of their common goals, as well as an idea of where their visions diverged.

The EERE Team then took their next step, formulating and conducting over 145 on-site visitor surveys at Biosphere 2 in the spring of 2010.

Some of their findings were expected. Others were surprising. Most visitors came with specific expectations for their experience, and those expectations were being fulfilled. Fifty-seven percent of visitors expected to see the different biomes and ecosystems within the facility. Still, a large number of visitors expressed a desire to learn more about Biosphere 2’s history and underlying engineering and design. They wanted to know more about the ongoing research being done. Almost half of visitors specifically wanted to learn how the Biosphere 2 design relates to sustainability issues of life on Earth, such as green technology and water conservation.

“They knew they had to shift from a show-and-tell model with tour guides to explore other options for engaging visitors,” says Roberts. “They had to define what they wanted people to experience, such as hanging out and talking with a researcher working in the rainforest. How do you allow visitors to do that while not interrupting the work? The potential outcomes are very strong and can create intimate connections. That’s the kind of outcome we wanted—that sense of ‘I was there. I got to talk to the scientists doing the work.’”

Aside from their work with Biosphere 2, the College of Education team has contributed to projects around the nation and the world, including the Cooper Center for Environmental Learning, T.R.E.E. of New Orleans, the McKeever Center for Environmental Learning in Pennsylvania, and the Cyprus Center for Environmental Research and Education.