This summer I was privileged to be able to work with Dr. Janet Swim and her colleagues at The Pennsylvania State University on a multidisciplinary project called “Visualizing and Experiencing Changes to the Critical Zone”. The research team consisted of Dr. Swim from the Psychology department, Dr. Jessica Gall Myrick from the Science Communication department, Dr. Tim White from the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, and Dr. Alexander Klippel and two of his post-doctoral students from the Geography department. With the collaboration of both the natural and social sciences, we worked to create an immersive virtual reality (VR) experience to teach the public about the Critical Zone (CZ) and the Food-Energy-Water (FEW) nexus. The CZ is a region of the planet that is critical to life, stretching from the tops of the vegetation canopy, down to the bottom of the fresh groundwater aquifer. Although this is a scientific term most commonly used in the earth sciences, the core idea behind the concept is intriguing and central to getting people to understand how our earth systems work, as well as our relationship with them. The FEW nexus is also an example of how our natural and human systems are interdependent. The idea behind the FEW nexus is being able to see how food, energy, and water systems are all related to and impact one another.
For most people who do not have some background in the natural sciences it can be difficult to grasp concepts like the CZ and FEW nexus. A number of factors make these topics particularly challenging to visualize and comprehend. To start, 85% of the CZ exists below ground which we cannot see. The CZ also requires understanding processes that occur at different temporal and spatial scales. Processes that affect the CZ can either be changing every minute such as some hydrological process, to geological processes that occur over the span of eons. At the spatial scale, there are some processes that are fairly local, such as soil formation, or can span the entire earth such as the carbon cycle. The FEW nexus can also be difficult to visualize, especially when considering the vast indirect relationships and impacts the food, energy, and water sectors have on one another. Due to the difficulty of visualizing and assimilating these concepts, VR is uniquely placed to provide a fun, engaging, and immersive means to teach about these ideas. The aim of this group is to create an experience that is immersive and educational in a way that actually affects how people think about themselves and their environment. In fact, we are hypothesizing that individuals who learn about the CZ and FEW nexus via VR, compared to a more traditional method, will not only learn more, but will experience different emotions, have higher systems thinking and exhibit greater integrative complexity (the extent to which someone can recognize and integrate multiple perspectives, possibilities and see their interactions), which will all in turn affect their tendency to support environmental policy.
My role this summer was to interview professionals with a background in the CZ and FEW nexus to better understand how they think and talk about the environment. I interviewed, transcribed, and have been qualitatively analyzing and coding these interviews to extrapolate themes. These interviews have helped us determine what to include in the VR experience, and we will be using them to help us create a knowledge and awareness measure of the CZ and FEW nexus. I worked most closely with Dr. Swim and Dr. Gall Myrick to structure what we wanted the VR experience to include and have been developing what pre- and post-measures to include when we launch the study in October. Although the summer is over, I will be continuing my work with Dr. Swim and the team this semester through an independent study. I will continue to work on qualitatively analyzing interviewee responses through a program called MAXQDA, and once the study begins, I will be coding participants’ responses to open-ended questions to gauge their degree of integrative complexity. I am very excited to be able to continue my work with this multidisciplinary group this year.
I learned a lot this summer, but something that has stuck with me the most is the power of reaching out to people. I originally connected with Dr. Swim after reading a number of her papers that were about climate change and psychology, which as an environmental studies and psychology major was deeply interesting to me. I have been deeply touched by Dr. Swim’s willingness to work and engage with me this summer despite not knowing me, as well as the ERI’s generosity to help me get to Penn State. This summer has been incredibly influential as I have honed in on my research interests as a direct result of what I was doing and studying at Penn State. Studying systems thinking and looking at human-environment interactions through a multidisciplinary perspective this summer has influenced what I plan to write my Environmental Studies thesis on this year. I will study community resilience to climate change through a behavioral and social-ecological systems perspective, which is what I hope to bring to my PhD studies in the future.