Arts and humanities in the LTER Network: understanding extent, values, and challenges by assessing the relevance of empathy in the LTER Network, 2013-2014

CREATOR(S): Lissy Goralnik, Michael P. Nelson
ORIGINATOR(S): Lissy Goralnik
19 Feb 2020
Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER)
Experimental Design - SS005:
Description: After launching a survey in 2013 to assess the values and challenges associated with arts and humanities in the LTER Network, which identified empathy as a meaningful potential outcome of this creative work, we conducted a follow-up analysis to understand: the relevance of empathy in the LTER Network; the role of empathy in bridging arts, humanities, and science collaborations; and the capacity of empathy to connect wider audiences both to LTER science and to the natural world. Our research included phone interviews with representatives from 15 LTER sites and an audience perception survey at an LTER-hosted art show.
Field Methods - SS005:

1) In August 2013 we employed a cross-site, social scientific analysis to understand the extent and nature of arts and humanities inquiry across the LTER Network and to assess perceptions about the values and challenges associated with it. In May 2013 we received a grant from the LTER Network Office to explore three guiding questions:

  • 1. What kind of arts and humanities inquiry exists across the Network and where is it taking place?
  • 2. What is the perceived value of this work?
  • 3. What are the perceived challenges to maintaining or further developing arts and ?humanities inquiry across the LTER Network?
We sent all 24 LTER Principal Investigators a Qualtrics online survey (, and encouraged them to use the personnel at their site to respond. The instrument consisted of 14 Likert-scale, draggable bar, and optional short answer questions. It took the respondents between 5 and 25 min to complete. Our response rate was 100 %.

2) In 2012, 10 visual and literary artists were selected to participate in a series of expert-guided field trips in Denali National Park and the Bonanza Creek LTER site in Fairbanks, Alaska with local ecologists. After the trips the participants had one year to create original work that responded to place and the complex webs of interdependence among plants, animals, humans, and ecosystems. In August 2013 a show of their collected work opened at the Fairbanks Art Association Bear Gallery. In a Time of Change: Trophic Cascades included silk quilting, sculpture, and painting, as well as storytelling and poetry (for more information see: Following this show, the work traveled to Anchorage for a month-long exhibit at Alaska Pacific University. To better understand the impact of art-humanities-science collaborations on a specific public, we launched an audience perception survey during the show’s opening night. In addition to demographic questions, we asked six 5-point Likert-scale questions about the impact of the exhibit on participant knowledge and attitudes about predators and ecosystem health; two 5-point Likert-scale questions about the role of art in building awareness about ecosystems and issues; and two Likert questions about participant motivations. We asked one short answer question about the most thought-provoking element of the exhibit. Opening night attendance was 280 visitors. Between August 2-21 attendance numbered 1,820 visitors. In this time we collected 94 surveys. Participants who completed a survey could enter a raffle to win a small piece by a show artist ($100 value). Most surveys were completed on opening night when researchers were present. Not all participants completed every survey question. The survey respondents were highly educated and primarily Alaska residents (see figures 2 and 3). Seventy-three percent of the participants (n = 69) self-identified as female, 23% identified as male (n = 22), and 2% declined to answer (n = 2). The majority of the participants were between 49-70 years old.

3) In fall 2014 we invited all 24 PIs from the previous study to participate in follow-up interviews and received responses from 15 LTER sites. We then conducted 15 semi-structured telephone interviews with 14 LTER PIs and two LTER outreach and education coordinators. One interview included both a PI and an outreach and education coordinator; joint interviews are a fairly common, if rarely studied, phenomenon (Arksey 1996; Morris 2001) that can surface tacit knowledge and richen data through the relational dynamic of the participants (Polak 2015). One pitfall is the tendency for one participant to overshadow the other, therefore the interviewer pressed individual participants for particular responses when she felt this might be happening (Morris 20011; Polak 2015). We used a telephone protocol because the participants were spread across the country; phone interviews are generally considered as effective as in-person interviews, while also providing a more efficient use of human and economic resources (Knox and Burkard 2009). Two interviewers each conducted half the interviews and both used the same semi-structured interview guide (Flick 2002):

  • 1. What is the connection between environmental science and inspiration, awe, and wonder?
  • 2. How is empathy important to or relevant for the LTER network?
  • 3. How might the LTER Network already be working to stimulate empathy?
  • 4. How might arts and humanities inquiry stimulate inspiration, awe, or wonder, or empathetic relationships with, the natural world?
While both interviewers asked the same four questions, each interviewer also allowed for participant responses to lead to authentic dialogue that pertained to, but was not limited by, the guide (DiCicco-Bloom and Crabtree 2006; Hill et al. 2005). The interview process was active (Holstein and Gubrum 1995), whereby both the interviewer and the interviewee participated in the making of meaning during the dialogue process. The interviews lasted between 12 and 42 minutes. The average interview was 26 minutes long. All interviews were recorded and fully transcribed (available upon request), and we used Nvivo qualitative software to manage the data and the coding process. We conducted a thematic analysis of the transcripts (Bovatzis 1998; Vaismoradi, Turunen and Bondas 2013), reading and re-reading the texts to observe themes across questions and participants. Our approach was interpretivist, in that we did not read the transcripts with a particular theoretical frame in mind. Instead we observed themes as they arose in the transcripts, made notes about these themes during the coding process, condensed themes into categories as we observed recurrent patterns, and finally analyzed these patterns within and across interviews to arrive at conclusions about the participants’ experiences with arts and humanities inquiry in the LTER Network.

LTER sites

Related Presentations:

"Art and Science Collaborations at Biological Field Stations." 2016. Organized and presented in a 90-minute group panel presentation/discussion at the Association for Experiential Education (AESS) Conference, Washington DC, June 2016.

"Arts and Humanities Efforts in the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network: Understanding Perceived Values and Challenges," 2015. with M.P. Nelson, H. Gosnell, & L. Ryan. 20 minute presentation at the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS) conference, San Diego, CA. June 2015.

"Arts and Humanities Efforts in the LTER network: Understanding perceived values and challenges," 2015. with M.P. Nelson, H. Gosnell, & L. Ryan. Poster presented at the HJA LTER 2015 Symposium, OSU, Corvallis, OR.