Spring 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA1

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Volatile Environmental Programming

As change agents, we may often find ourselves in tense situations. Strategies for intervention to address the concerns of the participants while still meeting the educational objectives of Extension programs are possible and would be applied in many areas. Care in the design of an intervention strategy may be the greatest predictor of our own success in dealing with significant public issues.

Joe E. Heimlich
Leader, Environmental Sciences,
Ohio State University Extension
Assistant Professor, Environmental Education
Ohio State University-Columbu

Ed Winkle
County Extension Agent
Warren County, Ohio

Given the nature of the program areas in which Extension works, we often find ourselves dealing with potentially volatile issues, ranging from adolescent pregnancy to waste management. Opportunities abound for educational intervention in the community decision-making process about such issues, but education is often forgotten in the expediency of government. Extension faculty are often drawn into the process after tensions have already mounted and lines have been drawn. How do we make a teachable moment out of a seemingly polarized issue? Educational theorists tell us that learning can't occur when people's minds are closed and there's no motivation to learn.1 So the problem is how to alter the learner's mindset to create a resolve to learn.2

This article focuses on the educational opportunity inherent in the often controversial situation of choosing a new community landfill site. It describes an intervention process strategy for informing, educating, and facilitating public discussion on landfill siting. Testing of the strategy shows that it may be applicable to a variety of Extension educational programs.

Public Forum

An Extension-sponsored public forum on landfills was held in Warren County, Ohio, in February 1992. This community had been divided over siting proceedings for a landfill. The forum was the first attempt at sharing and understanding the issues surrounding landfills so siting hearings would be feasible. As with any public forum, people approached it with strong attitudes. A pre- test was distributed to people as they arrived asking them to complete it before the program.

After the intervention strategy, a post-test was given using the traditional pre-test/post-test form.3 The post-test was an identical questionnaire to the pre-test, but printed on different colored paper. Of the 54 participants, 50 usable pre-tests and post-tests were returned. The survey form was a 14-item questionnaire. The summated measure was designed to reveal a construct called "attitude toward landfills." The instrument was constructed using a four-point Likert-type scale. Both positive and inverse questions were used.4 The value of positive and inverse statements reflected a four as strongly negative attitude toward landfills, with a one being a strongly positive attitude toward landfills. A four-point scale was used to create a forced- choice situation.5 Several subconstructs were included in the questionnaire so item analysis and subclustering were possible.

Intervention Process Strategy

As opposed to traditional Extension information presentations, an approach was borrowed from group process and Gestalt therapeutic processes for adult groups.6 The intervention process used a technique in which reflection was allowed for the forum participants followed by sharing without comment on concepts.

Individuals were asked to record on index cards two or three words that come to mind when they first think of landfills. After a few moments, they were asked to add two or three things they know about landfills to their lists.

After allowing time to reflect and write, people were asked to share first the words they'd written and then the things they believed. All words shared and all statements provided were put on a flipchart with no comment. The only remark was made part way through the initial sharing of words when the facilitator commented, "You are all being very nice!" This prompt was provided as a means of removing threat from what participants may have perceived as negative participation.7

Once all comments were captured, the pages were placed on a side wall-to then use a technique called "directing to the wall." The concept of directing to the wall is to allow the facilitator to focus any anger, bitterness, or frustration of participants directly to their own comments rather than being required to "accept" the attack.

The intervention process was initiated by pulling words from the charts and referring to how much we all know about landfills. Using the words people shared, information about the history of landfill construction requirements in Ohio was introduced. Over the years, requirements had been added to address specific landfill concerns. Validation was given to the people's concerns by noting that we all share a common memory of the open dump, and may transfer that concept to a landfill. The chronological history was used to show the transference from the dump to the sanitary landfill as mandated by current state law.

All information about landfill construction presented was related to points made by participants in the room. This way, people were able to see their valid concerns were being addressed by current requirements. Negative comments directed toward the facilitator were immediately transferred to the wall as he pointed out how the concern already had been stated, or the concern paralleled an issue introduced earlier. Many of the participants' questions directed to the facilitator were redirected back to them. For example, a question on guaranteeing water quality was rephrased as, "How would you guarantee water quality in a landfill?"

One of the greatest fears any citizen has about an issue that strikes close to home is that his or her concerns won't be addressed. Thus, even when expert presenters provide data to support or negate a position, people may fail to hear the information given because their fear intervenes. Through the intervention process, fears were validated and realized. Practical information related to the means by which citizens' fears and concerns were addressed, offered in the words and belief statements of the people participating, created an environment in which trust was built between them and the facilitator. Through this process, participants were also able to begin identifying the validity of technology.

During the forum, participants as a group went from largely negative positions to taking on the position of supporting a landfill. Based on knowledge, people could respond proactively- rather than defensively-to questions about a landfill in their community.

Did It Work?

The facilitators of the program approached the forum knowing that strongly negative attitudes about landfills were likely to exist. It was also known that these attitudes resulted from many years of absorbing information that landfills are inherently bad. Nonetheless, we hoped for a significant shift in attitudes as a result of the forum. The attitude rating before the intervention was 3.42; the post-test attitude rating was 2.21. This 1.21 shift is significant at p<.05.

Of the 14 items, eight indicated a significant attitude shift. These included statements related to the effects of landfills on an area and the alternatives to a landfill. The largest shift was in the statement, "Landfills near schools pose a safety threat;" the least shift occurred related to the statement, "An incinerator would greatly reduce the amount of trash that would be buried in a landfill."

What Does This Mean?

In many of our Extension programs, we claim our long-term objective is to change attitudes. When a topic is potentially volatile, we know attitudes must be changed before free flow of information takes place.

Borrowing group process techniques from fields that rely on disclosure as part of the process, it's possible to construct learning opportunities even in the face of a potentially explosive situation. The process used, and validated by data from the pre- and post-tests, relied on four significant factors:

  1. Open acceptance of all statements (even those that were likely "tests" of the facilitators) reduced the threat.

  2. Transference of the facilitator as the object of frustration/fear/anger through the use of the directing to the wall.

  3. Validation of the comments made by participants as being real fears grounded in personal experience and understanding.

  4. Use of participant's input to construct the teaching agenda.

As change agents, we may often find ourselves in tense situations. Strategies for intervention to address the concerns of the participants while still meeting the educational objectives of Extension programs are possible and would be applied in many areas. Care in the design of an intervention strategy may be the greatest predictor of our own success in dealing with significant public issues.


1. W. F. Hill, Principles of Learning: A Handbook of Applications (Sherman Oaks, California; Alfred Publishing Company, Inc., 1981).

2. R. M. Gagne, The Conditions of Learning, 2nd ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1970).

3. D. R. Campbell and J. C. Stanley, Experimental and Quasi- Experimental Designs for Research (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963).

4. D. A. Dillman, Mail and Telephone Surveys: The Total Design Method (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1978).

5. S. Sudman and N. M. Bradburn, Asking Questions (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1982).

6. R. L. Applebaum and others, The Process of Group Communication (Chicago: Science Research Associates, Inc., 1974).

7. M. B. Carlsen, Meaning-Making: Therapeutic Processes in Adult Development (New York: W. W. Norton's Company, 1988).