Environment

An Experiment in Dialogue: From Facts to Values

Project Uproot is a project by a group of Imperial science communication students, which aims to raise environmental awareness through hands on plant care. The project grew out of our idle daydreams as we sat on campus, noting the ill health and overcrowded conditions of some of the house plants in our department. The concept took on a life of its own and our perceptions of public engagement shifted through the weeks, mirroring shifts in the world of science communication from ‘public understanding’ to ‘public engagement’—from facts to values.

Plants as a mode of information delivery

Whilst the scientific consensus on climate change has only become stronger, polls suggest public concern may be waning. Governments now accept the need for action, but for many, change is slow to come and as individuals we can be left feeling that there’s little we can personally do.

We conceived of plants as a means of engagement. Having decided early on that ‘dialogue’ was the communication buzzword for us, the goal was to give away plants, initiating conversations about caring for the environment. We set about creating a website and social media presence, and made a huge quantity of ‘upcycled’ plant pots. Every plant pot would contain an ‘infosnack’—a bite sized science fact—as well as links to our Twitter and Facebook accounts and website. Each plant would be ‘abandoned’ in a public space where somebody would come across it and adopt it. In our initial conception of things, that’s when the dialogue would begin—a plant finder would start communing with us online, we’d supply them with sciencey information, they’d morph into an environmentally aware ecowarrior.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, this plan fell a little flat. Having given out 100 or so plants, there wasn’t much evidence of interaction between ourselves and our recipients—people tended to tweet us saying “Thanks for the plant,” and that would be the end of it. Our number of twitter followers did grow, and we did keep on tweeting out plant related facts, but the reception fell short of our expectations.

Meanwhile, the quest for houseplants had taken us to Crystal Palace’s food market, where we’d held a ‘houseplant amnesty,’ taking plants in and repotting them with their owners, sharing a stall with a local community garden. We’d given out no small number of plants, and met a lot of people who seemed to get what we were doing, which gave us renewed belief in our concept. The market in Crystal Palace grew out of the Transition Towns movement, which is a grassroots movement to find low-carbon solutions as a response to climate change and peak oil—the problem with outreach here is that it felt like preaching to the converted.

From facts to values

Building on our experiences, we organised a ‘repotting party’ at Dalston Eastern Curve Garden, an east London community garden. We reflected on Carey’s two models of communication. The ‘transmission view,’ where communication is passed on from a sender to a receiver, and ‘ritual view,’ where communication is more about the shared experience (Carey, 1989). The ‘ritual’ view was dominant in our interactions offline, and we realised it might be a more fruitful means to explore sustainability with our audience. We adopted a more ritual approach to our online communications too—less transmitting facts, more sharing pictures and experiences with our online audience.

The engagement event: Shared immersion model

At our repotting party, we painted, chatted, planted, ourselves active participants in the activities, guiding from within. Roger Kneebone calls this the shared immersion model, arguing it creates mutual trust and that both participants and facilitators learn from the event experience. Kneebone talks about a ‘continuum of expertise’, where all participants have knowledge or experience to contribute—as relative novices to plant care, we relied on other’s know-how whilst we shared our motivations and understanding of science casually, through conversation. Young participants bombarded us with questions, their curiosity piqued by dealing directly with plants. According to Kneebone “because engagement activity in this model is experiential, immersive, and shared by all parties, scientists and public develop a common ground for communication within the agenda of the scientific research project and/or development of an idea.” Evaluating the event afterwards Marie, Dalston Curve Garden’s manager, reflected, “For people to care about the environment, they have to care about plants first.”

Musing on the experience, I found myself considering how our positioning of ourselves during the events affected the outcome. When people wanted to know our motivations, we invariably found ourselves explaining how Project Uproot was an attempt at environmental engagement. This statement of motivation itself opened up discussions about environmental values. Whilst in many formal learning environments, the focus is on transmitting facts, our shared experience in an informal setting allowed us to explore values with participants. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire said that “Dialogue awakens an awareness.” He also said “The role of the educator is not to ‘fill’ the educatee with ‘knowledge’, technical or otherwise. It is rather to attempt to move towards a new way of thinking in both educator and educatee” (Freire, 1976).

Concretely, we know that Project Uproot participants each went home with a plant, which will serve as a reminder of their experience. We don’t know exactly what else participants will have taken from the experience—but this open-endedness is an essential part of the process.

References

Carey, J. (1989) ‘A Cultural Approach to Communcation.’ In Communicatoin as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (Boston: Unwin Hyman) p15

Freire, P. (1976). Education: The Practice of Freedom. (London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative)

Ella Wright is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.

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