June 1st, 2022

Because it is fun? How to design for long term engagement in informal sustainability education.

By Rebecca C. Jordan and Amanda Sorensen

Link to the JSE General Issue May 2022 Table of Contents

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Abstract: Many have written about the different ways people participate in authentic scientific research. However, some of the means used to engender public support in research may prove ultimately counterproductive. In this opinion piece we argue that science is not fun much of the time, and more importantly that fun in itself is not an end goal in engaging public audiences. To draw participation, we need to focus on motivation; which can include fun some of the time.

Keywords: Motivation, Informal Science, Public engagement with science

Science education museums and agencies have long used fun as a lure to engage the public in efforts toward responsible stewardship or to spread awareness about and engender engagement with the science-related organization. These public engagement partnerships often prove useful to the public and can provide innovation to the socio-scientific enterprise. However, some of the means used to engender public support may prove ultimately counterproductive. Some of these programs seek to prioritize fun for the public. Games, photos of laughter, brief but entertaining lectures, and eye-catching demonstrations can all be found in programs seeking to engage the public in the “wow” of sustainability and environmental science. What happens, however, when the public looks beneath the surface and ask the “how” of this science? Below we discuss ways to compel sustained engagement among participants when the novelty of engagement wears off.

As scientific sustainability researchers who work with many other scientists and science communicators, we argue that this message is clear; if you want to draw public interest, make it fun, at least to start (e.g., Stengler, 2015; Chmiel, 2015; both scientist/communicators). Certainly a visit to a newly renovated environmental science centre will show digital displays, eye-catching photography, and often interactive simulations that offer the promise of fun. In formal education this theme of fun is underscored through messages like this one given on a popular radio show, “To make science real, kids want more fun (Westervelt for NPR, 2013).” To be clear, adding fun is not a bad strategy, especially to engender initial engagement. To draw sustained participation, however, we need to focus on motivation.

To begin, let us address what draws scientists to sustainability science. PEW Charitable Trust investigated the “why science” for scientists. Not surprisingly, “because it is fun,” was not the common answer (Funk and Hefferon, 2014 for PEW). Largely it was the challenge, curiosity, and love of the natural world that drew individuals to science. The question may arise, does challenge and curiosity equate to fun? That depends on how you define fun, which, is not easy to do. Below, we will discuss the definition of fun as it relates to engagement. Following this, we will highlight critical elements of motivation and introduce the concept of flow as a goal for sustained participation. We close with thoughts about what we lose by failing to focus on motivation.

To begin, what is fun? Some describe fun as a physiological phenomenon of positive brain affecting chemicals (Koster [game designer]) 2013), while others talk about psychologically positive emotions (e.g., valence; Rucker [organizational psychologist] quoted in Sugar, 2020). Such emotions, Rucker clarifies, can be of high arousal (e.g., excited) or low arousal (e.g., contentment; [Rucker 2020]). Finally, many implied definitions, highlight some hedonistic or self-serving value around fun (e.g., Babin et al., 1994), which can be contrasted with a usefulness value.

On closer inspection, though, even activities considered high in hedonistic value (e.g., gaming) involve more than simply pleasure-seeking alone. Lazzaro (2004)’s four critical emotions to gaming certainly involve the internal altered state, the social aspects, and the easier aspects of fun, but in addition, this author discusses a concept termed hard fun. The latter involves the challenge or puzzle of games and the feeling of accomplishment that occurs when mastered. This can help sustain learners over periods when mastery becomes tedious (e.g., Yee, 2006). It seems, based on Yee’s work, even fun needs something more to motivate the users’ sustained engagement.

For over 20 years, educational psychologists have known that motivation and sustained engagement in novel experiences are related (e.g., Cordova and Lepper, 1996). Engagement often requires autotomy and choice (e.g., Deci and Ryan 1985). As these authors suggest, when individuals believe they are making the choice to engage, then participation can result from intrinsic engagement. Cordova and Lepper (1996), for example, found deeper learning and engagement in learning games that were also personally meaningful.

Personal meaning like fun, however, is different for everyone. Reker and Wong (2012) describe meaning as deriving from two sources: global (i.e., existential type) and situational (i.e., experience type). And while their data from longitudinal studies reveal a complex picture, it is clear that hedonistic endeavors were not correlated with psychosocial persistence. Further, personal meaning in a global context is related to stress reduction and well-being (Reker and Wong, 2012). Certainly personal meaning plays an important role in professional choice like that seen with scientists. Further, and in general, workplace satisfaction is related to control, appreciation, and personal meaning (Schneider, 2017). While effort in the workplace is related to external drivers such as pay, location, and other life factors, it is clear when individuals have the choice to seek alternative employment, seeking personal meaning is an important factor in their choice.

Beyond the personal, social meaning is also important. When Reis et al. (2017) investigated individuals engaged in fun activities they found that the presence of others (i.e., friends) made for more fun. In addition, though fun is associated with high and low arousal as mentioned above, social fun was only associated with high arousal. What is not clear, however, is the extent to which high or low arousal can affect motivation to engage. Regardless, it appears that it is not only learning but also engagement that is socially mediated.

When discussing engagement, social psychologists discuss the locus of motivation as being intrinsically or extrinsically driven (e.g., Deci, 1975). This means that drivers for a behavior could be internal (i.e., intrinsic), for which there is no apparent external reward for the behavior. In the context of this piece, the targeted behavior is sustained engagement in the public science activity. The opposite of intrinsic is usually externally (but sometimes internally) guided (e.g., extrinsic), and for which there are tangible rewards such as money, status, and social interaction. Using the definitions provided above, hedonism and personal meaning are examples of intrinsic motivation, whereas social meaning can be an internal (acceptance) or external (peer pressure) process that is generally extrinsically driven. It is important to consider this locus of motivation because general extrinsic factors can reduce intrinsic drivers; and changes and changes in the latter can affect engagement (e.g., Deci et al., 1981).

The goal of balancing these internal and external elements, we argue is to develop flow. Flow is a concept that is characterized by total engagement (Csikszentmihalyi and Rathunde, 1993). This type of engagement is comprised of several elements: limited external awareness, strong concentration and sense of control, and loss of self-consciousness and time to name a few elements (Csikszentmihalyi and Rathunde, 1993). In other words, a state of flow is complete absorption in the task. If we are to believe that enjoyment is derived from intrinsic type motivation, then we expect flow to also stem from intrinsic drivers (Almqvist et al., 2007). Is there a way to present projects where the public can engage in science (e.g., citizen science) at the level of continued flow? In other words, are planned interactions and points of engagement being created to be personally meaningful, often valuable, and sometimes fun (especially of the hard fun type!)? We argue that clearly understanding the audience and the elements that this audience finds personally and socially meaningful can help compel engagement.

Down side of fun?
If fun is not a requisite for sustained engagement and flow in novel experiences, an important question is whether fun can be counter-productive? We argue that it can be counter-productive when fun becomes a distraction to the main point of the engagement; especially in contexts where the intrinsic motivation to participate is eroded. Certainly in some cases adding fun such as complementing rote memorization for an exam with a song can help learners achieve and sustain their engagement (e.g., Lesser et al., 2016). Yet, in other cases the fun activity can serve to draw the learner attention from the important features of the experience as can happen when a student is multi-tasking (e.g., Schmidt, 2020). An important reason why individuals discontinue their engagement with an experience is because it was not what they thought it would be (Drew, 2011). Further, Drew (2011) discusses certain extrinsic drivers that are likely responsible for the reduction of intrinsic motivation to participate by not being relevant or too competitive. Such a level of dissatisfaction seems to us, worse than no engagement at all. What if fun were to serve as an initial draw? From there, the expectations of the experience can be shifted. At this point when engagement is less fun, the participant is expecting the experience to change.

The shift in participation described above has been widely studied. Crowston and Fagnot (2008) discuss how initial motivation changes from the initial attraction to participate and through time with continued engagement. Building on previous work (e.g., Hackman and Oldman, 1976) that described outcomes of workplace engagement based on internal personality factors and external conditions, these authors suggest that motivation changes with time. It seems that programs would do well to intentionally plan for motivational movement throughout participation. Certainly online science game designers in the context of citizen science have closely studied the interplay of internal to external motivational factors (e.g., Tinati et al., 2017; Prestopnik and Tang, 2015; Raddick et al., 2009) and suggest that a balance of story, social engagement, and hedonistic type fun is highly motivating.

Broader impacts of engagement
In addition, we contend the costs of not drawing in audiences for whom the sustainability of science has the potential to be personally meaningful could mean missing individuals for whom engagement may be critical. This ties into broader perspectives about who science is for and why (see review in Appelbaum and Clark, 2001). These authors contend that many science education practices reinforce the division of power within, and the “othering” of, science. Many have provided insight regarding the democratization of science and its impact on society (e.g., Jenkins, 1999). Certainly, members of the public have questions about and vested interest in scientific outcomes. While, Jenkins (1999) suggests a science for all may be an overstatement, there is great value for scientific thinking integrated into curricula.

Fundamentally some may need to attract engagement for commercial purposes (e.g., sale of science kits, attract attendance to a private science center, etc.), but many who seek to engage the public in science see value for public literacy in socio-scientific development and societal advancement (Layton et al., 1986). Others derive this imperative for ethical reasons. For example, Lee et al. (2019) discuss how broader engagement in science and medicine can close gaps in inequality in terms of outcomes and access. For those who do not see sustainability science or scientific literacy as part of their identity (e.g., those groups who are underrepresented in the environmental sciences) or those who are greatly impacted by the environmental decisions (e.g., on the local, regional, and national scale), meaningful participation can help ensure benefits of scientific discovery are shared by all. Finally, a renewed focus on meaning could be an opportunity to bring in individuals/scientists who do not view themselves as entertainers but have an interest in bringing their sustainability science to the public.

In closing, we suggest that an intentional focus on the intrinsic drivers of personal and social meaning is more critical than the focus on sustaining fun. While we agree, fun can be motivating, it is difficult to sustain especially with broad audiences and age groups. This lack of continued engagement can serve to hurt science in the long run. For example, a number of students became involved in a participatory middle school science class because they thought it would be fun (especially if the endeavor were to result in a scientific paper; See Gray et al., 2012). To conduct authentic science, however, the course instructor needed students to participate above and beyond what might normally be present in a science class. The amount of participation quickly dropped with a number of students reporting a reduction of interest in science. The students that remained, however, and completed the work reported that while the experience was not fun, they found it necessary and important. Without the latter, the project and the people involved would have never been completed. Fortunately, that instructor, like other environmental science educators and communicators had other tools of motivation in their programmatic design toolkits. We argue that such intentional design around these sometimes not very fun seeming factors proved invaluable for science engagement in the long run (e.g., Raddick et al. 2009; Appelbaum and Clark, 2001; Jenkins 1999)


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