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4 questions with Andrea Lorek Strauss

When it comes to addressing controversial issues in Extension teaching, you’ve recommended to “teach the questions.” What does that mean? 

Andrea Lorek Strauss,
Extension Educator, Fish, Wildlife & Conservation Education,
Rochester Regional Office
“Teaching the questions” means helping audience members to think about an issue at a bigger picture level. I view Extension as playing a critical role helping our citizenry understand the larger societal and scientific questions that a controversy raises. We are in a unique position not only to share factual information about a situation, but also to help people recognize when larger questions are at play, such as “What is nature for?” “Who gets to make decisions?” “What is the appropriate role for government?”

The conflict of the moment may be about a current situation or problem, but differences of opinion are often rooted in differing value systems, differing world views. When we disagree about buffer strips, we’re really disagreeing about larger questions like “Who makes decisions about land use?” “Who should pay the price for clean water?” “What value do we place on democratic processes?” and so many more. Thinking about the issue through the lens of these larger questions helps to uncover the roots of the issue, the sources of our disagreement.

Understanding these larger contexts helps us understand ourselves and each other better. It helps us talk about what really matters and what’s at stake with any given issue. And when citizens understand an issue more clearly, they can engage more effectively with each other and the public processes that affect us all.

What programs are you part of and who are the major audiences? 

About half of my time is dedicated to working on the Minnesota Master Naturalist program; I specialize in training and supporting our corps of 200 instructors, writing the curriculum and other special projects such as the annual conference. We are excited about our new model of volunteer engagement, which is helping us understand and support our participants through all phases of their involvement.

Invasive Blitz workshop in Duluth.
This workshop was covered by local media. 

The other half of my time focuses on a program called “Driven to Discover,” which trains volunteer adults to help youth get involved with citizen science and to use that experience to conduct real science research projects. By monitoring birds, monarch butterflies, phenology, dragonflies or pollinators, young people can’t help but to become curious about what they see. This program capitalizes on that interest and channels it into investigations.

So, I work with volunteers, naturalists, educators, youth group leaders, citizen scientists and anyone else interested in natural resource conservation!

What do you see as the major challenges facing citizen science? 

Sometimes also called “Public Participation in Scientific Research,” citizen science entails getting the general public involved in following specific protocols to gather, report and analyze scientific data. Research scientists at universities or public agencies can’t address large-scale ecological questions on their own, so calling on the public produces valuable conservation information while at the same time helping participants build a connection to nature, engage with their communities and build their scientific literacy.

The field of citizen science is fairly new to the world of science, and there are a few skeptics reluctant to trust data collected by “untrained” members of the public. But acceptance is growing, if slowly. Another challenge is helping prospective volunteers, including youth, to see their power to make a difference in the world, to see that it really is possible for them to do work that matters. And once these volunteers are engaged, supporting them over time with feedback and new opportunities can also be a challenge.

How did your interest in conservation education start?

Like many, I grew up playing outdoors. My siblings and I loved family camping trips around east central Wisconsin where I grew up. My mom wasn’t the roughing it type, so she and my dad – a definite woodsman – compromised with a pop-up camper. I have great memories of camping: cool nights in the camper, playing in the woods, paddling with my dad, hanging around the campfire, swimming in fast-moving rivers, and attending naturalist talks everywhere we went. I also spent summers attending scout camp, eventually earning opportunities to go on wilderness canoe trips. In this setting I really found my own footing in the outdoors and learned to love wild places. I had poor experiences in high school science classes, so in college I studied the things that came easily to me – communication, English, secondary education. I was all set to be a high school English and speech teacher. But after college I knew I needed to be outdoors and took a big leap of faith by accepting a seasonal outdoor education job in Massachusetts. I had the teaching experience, everyone else there had been biology majors, and together we figured out how to teach kids about food webs and the like. A year-long training program at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in northern Minnesota cemented my confidence that I was headed in the right direction.
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