Taking cautious steps past sandstone cliffs on the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon, it’s easy to feel connected to the grandeur of nature. But when Nicole Ardoin led hiking groups as an interpretive naturalist with the Student Conservation Association and National Park Service at age 22, she also felt deeply connected to the hikers hanging on her every word: erosion, sedimentary, the narrative interplay of culture and nature.

Nicole Ardoin, an associate professor of education and director of the Social Ecology Lab at Stanford, distributes surveys to tourists for a research project in the Farallon Islands. (Image credit: T. Shabani)

“I thought, ‘This is what I want to do with the rest of my life,’ ” said Ardoin, an associate professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, who has parlayed her passion for the environment and social science into a career that spans continents as well as research disciplines.

As founder and director of the Social Ecology Lab at Stanford, Ardoin remains focused on the connection between places and people, whether they are ecotourists in the Galapagos islands, crabbers in the Chesapeake Bay, or commuters at Stanford.

“What I love about studying ‘place’ is that it’s an equal-opportunity research topic,” said Ardoin, who is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and faculty director of the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER), a Stanford graduate program that is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. “Everyone in the world can talk about place because everyone lives somewhere.”

Through a range of approaches, including interviews, surveys, and observations, the Social Ecology Lab studies how people (the ‘Social’ part) feel and what they believe about the world around them, and what they are able and willing to do to protect it, especially in terms of interaction with each other and the natural world (the ‘Ecology’ part). Ardoin and her team work on research-based interventions, often with community partners, that translate those insights into effective, environmentally friendly actions by individuals and communities.

As part of that outreach, the lab has developed a new online course for anyone looking to infuse their environmental communication and educational practices with research. The free, self-paced course, Designing for Change: Environmental Education Research and Practice, is meant to be collaborative, and participants are encouraged to take the course with a partner.

Developing a sense of self-efficacy

Ardoin explains that simply sharing information about climate change, biodiversity loss, or any other big, overwhelming topic usually isn’t enough to inspire change.

Ardoin takes notes at a beach on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, where she co-taught a sophomore college course on water in the American West. (Image credit: Lauren Oakes)

“It’s not just about dumping knowledge into someone’s head or putting a sign on the side of a bus,” she said. “It’s more about supporting people in developing a sense of self-efficacy. They have to build knowledge and skills that allow them to make a difference on important, relevant issues.”

A sense of place can be as complicated and chaotic as the places themselves. While many researchers try to simplify systems and control variables, Ardoin’s team embraces the complicating factors that influence behaviors. “We do our research in the messiness of the real world,” she said.

To fully understand the ways that people perceive and interact with their environments, Ardoin and her team call on the fields of psychology, political science, geography, and learning sciences, among others. Her 14-person group includes members with PhDs or master’s degrees in fields such as sociology, anthropology, and science education.

“All of us are quite interdisciplinary,” said Ardoin, who has a PhD in social ecology and an MS in natural resource management, and studied art history, business, and French before taking that life-changing job at the Grand Canyon.

Ardoin’s team has applied its multipronged approach to places like the Galapagos Islands, a Pacific archipelago visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. The tourists face a particular form of cognitive dissonance.

“They have an incredible experience,” she said. “For days, all they hear about and experience is the pristine nature of the islands. Often, just before they are leaving, they learn that the islands are threatened by climate change, pollution, illegal fishing, and even pressures from tourism.” That last message, she said, is especially hard to hear.

Thanks to work by Ardoin and other colleagues, tour providers have undertaken efforts to tailor elements of the interpretive experience to provide a more complete – and more actionable – understanding of the islands. “The more holistic message then becomes: It’s a magnificent place with thriving biodiversity, but it’s also one that is threatened. The positive and hopeful side of this message is that there’s something you can do about it,” she said. “And that’s not just true of the Galapagos, but it’s true everywhere. All places on Earth face challenges, especially when we are talking about an issue like climate change – and those issues differ from place to place, but there is something you can do about it.”

‘Wherever you are is a place’

Closer to home, Ardoin’s team has observed Bay Area residents in their natural habitats, including Stanford commuters making their way to work and shoppers forging connections at farmers’ markets. Their studies find that people often have a range of motives for environmentally friendly actions.

Ardoin talks with tourists on a whale-watching expedition, where her lab conducted surveys and interviews to study environmental behavior. (Image credit: T. Shabani)

For example, many Caltrain riders appreciate a chance to work or zone out without having to think about traffic – a finding that can be useful when designing campaigns to promote alternative transportation options. Shoppers at farmers’ markets like to chat with neighbors and farmers, interactions that create new opportunities for messaging around community building as well as healthy eating.

A through-line for Ardoin’s work has been finding ways to help people value and protect the places that are important to them. “While you may not live in the Galapagos or the Grand Canyon, it’s important to recognize that, wherever you are is a place – and you can be connected to your neighborhood and think about how you can make a difference, starting right where you are.”

In today’s highly mobile world, many people, in fact, feel attached to multiple places, often transcending the traditional idea of communities. As Ardoin puts it, somewhere in Chicago, there’s a surfer who feels most at home when they’re riding a wave in Santa Cruz. Such diffuse connections amplify the opportunities for people to take action to protect places and resources, whether near or far, she said.

Moreover, Ardoin emphasizes that the concept of “places” goes beyond landscapes and nature. Whether people live in postcard-worthy mountains, a sandy coast, or the midst of a bustling urban center, much of their identity comes down to their sense of community. “Even in strikingly beautiful places, people mainly talk about their connections with other people,” she said.

For the last couple of pandemic years, Ardoin’s ‘place’ has largely been in her office. But spring 2022 brought new possibilities for travel and outreach. On Earth Day, her team visited Big Basin State Park in California as part of a reawakened project focused on the effects of climate change on the iconic redwoods. This summer, team members will be returning to the Galapagos to see how perspectives on environmental literacy and behavior have changed over the years.

One of Ardoin’s first post-pandemic field trips took her back to her old stomping grounds, Grand Canyon National Park, where she spoke with park rangers about a potential new research project on climate change. She hopes to measure things like understanding and optimism, elements that, in their way, are as fundamental as carbon.

She’s no longer leading hikes, but she’s still connected to the canyon. It’s the place where her work started, but it’s just one place among many that matters.

Nicole Ardoin and Mele Wheaton, associate director of strategy at E-IPER, teach Designing for Change: Environmental Education Research and Practice, a new online course developed by the Social Ecology Lab. Learn more and register here.