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Evaluation at play: Students learn about social science research

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The students make their way around the research site, noting places for observation and questions that might come up. 
Suddenly, a sharp noise cuts through their quiet murmurs.
It’s the sound of a toy car as it’s sent down the concrete walkway, because this research site is a new play area at Sandy Creek Nature Center in Athens, Georgia. So, it would make sense that kids would be using the space to, well, play.
The class, “PRTM 4700: Social Science Methods and Techniques in Natural Resources,” is required for all students at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources who are majoring in parks, recreation and tourism management. On this Saturday morning, they’ve gathered at the nature center’s new space to talk about the research they will conduct on how it’s used. The results will help inform park managers on adjustments they can make in the future to better serve guests.
“It’s a nature playscape, and if you look in the literature, there’s a huge rise of what’s called nature playscapes all around the United States,” said Randy Smith, facility supervisor for Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services. “It’s all about exploration and learning on your own in a sort of controlled environment, but also be physical and get out there and use your mind.”
The students have gathered with Ryan Sharp, a visiting faculty member from Kansas State University and a Warnell alumnus. Sharp’s expertise lies in understanding how people use parks, and he’s worked with state and national parks across the country to help better understand visitor patterns.
In this class, students will create a survey, interpret their data and then present results to a client—in this case, Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services. Conducting these types of surveys is essential in this line of work, but often more pressing needs of a facility, whether it’s maintenance or immediate guest needs, take precedence. As a result, surveys such as this, which require hours of observation and data crunching, are often left undone.
But when you’re working with grants and public money, you need to be sure you’re investing in the right places and for the right reasons.
“This class is a research methods class, so we’re using this as the vehicle to talk about the research process,” said Sharp. “And we’re here now to get a sense of what it looks like. Then, we’re going to develop, in collaboration with them, some survey questions.”
Throughout the semester, the students will learn about the different processes of developing a study, and then how to deliver that information. It’s a lot to pack into a semester, as not only do the students need to understand the full process, but Sharp also wants to deliver a professional-quality product in the end. For most of the students in the class, this is their first experience creating a survey or compiling data.
“I don’t have a lot of experience with social science data collection, so this is pretty new to me; I have more experience with hard-science data collection,” said Maddie Kuhn, a fourth-year parks, recreation and tourism management major. “I think it’s really interesting because you can apply social science to any situation. That involves how people interact here with the environment, in this specific playground.”
The play area was installed last year, during the height of the pandemic, so its use has been inconsistent until recently. On top of that, Smith said it’s been difficult for he and other staff members to collect data on its use. Instead, board members for the nature center have been conducting volunteer maintenance and reporting back on what they’re seeing. 
The play area, located in a sloped area behind the nature center’s main building, features play areas that leave a lot of interpretation to its users. There’s a tunnel and bridge and planted areas to attract pollinators. There’s also an interactive sundial—if you know how to use it. Lower down the slope, there are logs for climbing and sticks for fort-making. Or, chill out in a throne carved out of a tree trunk.
“We don’t have a lot of learning expectations—in the exhibit hall you might learn about a food web or those kinds of things,” said Smith. “Here, it’s more about what you take away from the experience. We didn’t want to replicate the level of learning that we have inside. And, you can learn a lot out here—it’s just in a different mode.”
As they toured the space, the students learned about the different ways kids—and adults—might use different features. Some elements were added to the design to guide people to choices that wouldn’t cause erosion or create a falling hazard. For example, a terraced area was planted with shrubs to discourage climbing, and thick ropes were installed at the topo of the faux-wood slide to prevent visitors from scaling the hill.
The next steps for the students? Finalizing their survey questions, then spending time out here in the sunshine to ask parents and caregivers about how they use the space—and doing their own observations.
“For me personally, if we were observing children in a concrete type of place, I’d start to get preoccupied. But it’s really nice here that it’s stimulating enough for college students to work within the environment. And it’s so cool getting to see how creative the children can be,” said Rachel Bink, a fifth-year parks, recreation and tourism management major. “As an adult, I would never use these facilities the ways that the children are. It’s kind of a nice reminder of my childhood.”
Sharp feels strongly that this type of data is essential for anyone working in the natural resources. Most, if not all, management issues in natural resources can be traced back to human use. This can be how park visitors use trails or play areas, but also connects with other areas of wildlife, forestry and aquatics management. It’s about understanding how humans are affecting the natural landscape, and how to mitigate those effects.
“Hypothetically, anyone who graduates from PRTM is going to work for some sort of organization where they have to do some sort of evaluation—at least, they should be,” said Sharp. “I’m trying to stress to them that you need to know these things so you can better serve those constituents. Every organization should be doing this; evaluations like this often fall under ‘other duties as assigned.’ But it’s unbelievably essential.”

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