A Focus Group for Mississippi Watershed Management Organization

May 12, 2017 / By: Tove Lilith Conway, SCP Guest Blogger

The final unit of Mark Neuzil’s Environmental Communication 2017 spring course connected with the Sustainable Communities Partnership (SCP) in the form of a focus group towards the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (MWMO). Overall, the goal of the Environmental Communication course was to strengthen communication skills regarding the environment. Additionally, in the course description it says that “students will examine what makes (and what has made) the environmental stories we tell about ourselves, from writing about agriculture, nature and spirituality to green advertising, the rhetoric of the environmental movement, and environmental movies and music.” The overall goal of the MWMO is to protect and improve the water and its surrounding habitat in our local urban watershed. With two different goals, what brought Environmental Communication 372 together with MWMO outside of SCP? Before answering this question, it would help to glance at the course’s progression leading up to the focus group at the end of the semester.

As a student in Neuzil’s Environmental Communication course, I learned that most environmental writing communicates a message for its readers beneath the breadth of its story. In our class we read a range of environmental writing; some were politically charged, some held foundations in religion, and some simply painted a picture of humans’ relationship with nature. For example, John Muir (1838-1914) was both a famous nature writer and early advocate for preservation of wilderness in the United States. We read part of his book, My First Summer in the Sierras. In this book, Muir brings the nature he experienced into the palm of our hands. For example, in the following passage from Chapter 4, “To the High Mountains,” we catch a glimpse of his writing and his message:

Now away we go toward the topmost mountains. Many still, small voices, as well as the noon thunder, are calling, ‘Come higher.’  Farewell, blessed dell, woods, gardens, streams, birds, squirrels, lizards and a thousand others. Farewell. Farewell (Muir, 111).

What is Muir communicating in this passage? It seems that the passage communicates a beginning and an end—specifically the beginning of Muir’s journey into the peaks of the Sierra Mountains, and an end to the nature that he is familiar with. Might there be another political motivation for Muir writing “Farewell” to nature at the end?

As the semester unraveled and we read more and more nature writings, it became even clearer how powerful environmental communication can be. Thus, when we neared the final unit, we were prepared to form a focus group to analyze the messages of the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization’s graphics.

The Mississippi Watershed Management Organization has a portfolio of graphics for storm water best management practices. These graphics communicate and promote the public infiltration of water into the ground instead of runoff into the Mississippi River. Our focus group’s goal was to evaluate these graphics and provide feedback on the effectiveness of the graphics’ different messages.

Our first task as a focus group was to write down what we initially thought the graphic symbolized and communicated. Second, an employee from MWMO revealed the correct message of the graphic. Third, we evaluated on a scale from one to ten how accurate we felt the graphic fit its message. And lastly, our class focus group explained how we thought the graphic was successful and what could be improved. On average we rated this “solar panel” graphic at about a 9/10. The graphic includes two elements: the sun and three solar panels beneath the sun. This is a simple setup that shows a relationship between the panels and the sun. To be a 10/10 graphic, we communicated to MWMO that a few sunrays (arrows) between the sun and the panels would add motion and energy to the graphic. We repeated this process for about 20 different MWMO graphics, each one delivering different messages from the MWMO to the public regarding elements and processes of the watersheds.

The MWMO and other watershed districts plan to use these graphics in the near future on signs, flyers, and other communication materials. These graphics will help the public to be involved with the goal of the MWMO: to protect and improve the water of the urban watershed. Returning to the question of how Environmental Communication 372 connected with MWMO outside of SCP is very simple—both had a focus on communication with a message. Thank you SCP for seeing this connection and bringing both groups together. Our Environmental Communication 372 course focus merged with the goal of the MWMO to efficiently deliver the small messages of the graphics for watershed districts in the urban area.