The research process is not linear. This is a challenge that I hadn’t expected, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that is a bad thing. The looped and curving nature of research brought me from studying compost in the frame of zero-waste goals, to community gardens, to organizational networks, and finally to niche networks of residents in the city. All of those steps were integral to getting me to the conclusions I’ve drawn now.
The question I ended up answering (at least in part) in my research was ultimately “What drives the urban composter to compost?”. In more developed terms, what does background, experience, and learning mean to the person who composts? Some of the major conclusions were as follows:
(1) Contrary to the “Education > Self-Efficacy > Composting” framework I originally conceived of, the data supports a framework that looks more like “Composting > Self-Efficacy > Education”.
(2) There is a network of peer-to-peer education that occurs when composers feel self- efficacy in (proud of and confident in), their composting abilities and are compelled to share that information.
(3) Experience and background is extremely individual, and there is no one passage to composting. As such, environmental education can not be seen as a blanket process.
The research experience has taught me many things about knowledge, work ethic, collaboration and myself. The expectations and realities of designing and conducting a research project overlap in some areas, and differ completely in others. Through my research, I learned that knowledge exists in many capacities. It is not just the articles I found sifting through Google scholar, but the stories, backgrounds, and perspectives of the public that propel us towards more holistic understandings of the world. I was challenged to abandon some of my ineffective work routines in favor of more labor intensive, yet ultimately more productive styles of working to get the job done. Additionally, I learned that working with a mentor is essential. Concepts can become more well-rounded in just one brainstorming session. And finally, I opened the door for myself to explore topics and issues that I didn’t realize I cared about. Overall, I feel enriched by the experience, and more developed as a knowledge seeker and environmentalist.
At this point, my research is near complete. I have collected all of my data and am now in the analytical stage. One of the most central questions that my survey inquired about was the “environmental background” of the participant. The environmental background of a person is the extent to which they have engaged with the physical and conceptual principles of the environment and environmentalism. These experiences vary greatly, as conveyed in the survey responses. Some participants identified the location in which they grew up, such as rural areas or on farm land, as their background in environmentalism. Others indicated that they pursued Environmental Science or a related discipline for their college degree, and counted this as their background.
So now, I am taking the data I have gathered and comparing the survey answers against each other. I am trying to find similarities and frequencies in the survey responses. This is the method that I used to reach the conclusion that I mentioned before. In addition to connecting simple themes, there is a lot of thought that must going in to figuring out what this all means. This not only requires pulling from my own experience, but also from the texts that I have read to prepare for this research. One tool that my mentor taught me was writing out a web of my data to discover connections and more in depth meanings of the survey answers. This helps to lay out all of the information in front of you so that you can then begin to process and analyze the data.
I found success in that my thesis questioned opened the doors for more conclusions to be drawn. For example, I am finding that it is not only direct experience that influences people to compost, but indirect experiences as well. For example, some participants indicated that they grew up composting their food scraps at home, or that they had volunteered at a garden or farm that composts. This is considered direct. Others indicated experiences that range from having recycled other types of waste in the past to experiences that involve broader interaction with the environment, environmental volunteerism, or environmental education. I am considering these indirect experiences.
Since my last blog update, I have been researching educational theory and STEM educational practices. Through this research, the concept of ‘Experiential’ or “Hands-on’ education has become a central theme. The premise is that experiential education is a way to supplement formal, facts-based learning with the goal of increasing the understanding of this knowledge. In this research, I assert that experiential learning does more than just increase understanding of scientific processes, but empowers learners to own and become stewards of this knowledge.
So, what does this mean for composting and food waste? Compost is a fundamentally hands-on process, but can appear abstract on paper. It is recycling in which people can become engaged through every step of the process from food to soil, and back to food. While we struggle with participation in food waste recycling, it is experiential learning of the process which can help people understand it uses and thus empower them to participate.
This project has required a great amount of collaboration with my mentor. My biggest struggle is trying to articulate and organize my ideas and findings into a paper. In my meetings with Professor Dupuis, we do brainstorming sessions on the whiteboard where these ideas flush out and take a more clear shape. She helps me recognize the connections in my ideas and in turn empowers me to investigate further. In a sense, it is much like experiential learning where engaged problem solving prompts a greater understanding of my research, and greater motivation to continue.
Food waste management is a huge operation with many moving parts, and the success of each part is heavily reliant on the others. In this research, we split these parts into levels; grassroots, intermediate, and city level operations. We found that each level supplies a different type of education process and different levels of engagement which fit together to form the larger conversation about food waste. We’re really focusing in on the education aspect of food waste management, and our current goal for this project is to understand the value in each level of education. We want to define what it means to be “compost literate”, and further to identify the key components of compost education. We also want to explore the educational role of being able to see the entire closed loop of food waste composting. That is, seeing the process from start to finish, from food to soil. The ultimate goal is to find the most successful and efficient methods of educating people about what is in their soil, and getting people to understand why they should care.
At this point in the research we know the challenges to achieving food waste composting, operationally speaking. Through interviews we found that community gardens, non-profit organizations, and waste carting businesses all experience temporal and spatial issues regarding their resources to compost and their capacity to process large amounts of food waste. Now that we have identified our interest in the education components of these organizations, it is time to go back and conduct more interviews with community gardens. We found that the weight of the education process seems to be leaning on the grassroots organizations (community gardens) as a foundation, so through more interviews we will be exploring in depth what that role means.