Every year on the last Saturday of September, the University of Oklahoma hosts a five kilometer run, the Fun Run. Every year around 650 runners participate, and each of them have their own goal. Some just want to push their strollers in more of a five kilometer walk and have a good time, some enjoy the community of runners and maybe push themselves a little. And some switch to race mode, eat pasta the night before, put on their Dri-Fit running clothes and their GPS watches with heart rate monitor, and run like they’re trying to set a new world record.
I fall into this last category.
I’ve been running for about 13 years now, ever since I started college and my class schedule and homework made it difficult for regular wrestling practice. Running is something I can do on my own, at my own pace, whenever I like it, and wherever I like it. I most enjoy running in the morning, through parks and side streets, when the air is crisp and cool. There is nothing more beautiful than to start the day with a run. I like hearing birds chirp, and I watch the world around me slowly wake up. It motivates me, it floods my brain with fresh air and energizes me for the day ahead.
I didn’t use to care much about pace, or technique, or food, or racing, until I realized I was actually quite good at it. Four of my five Fun Runs I finished among the first ten. My first half marathon in 2015 I finished twelfth out of over 1,100 starters. And in my first marathon this year, in Oklahoma City, I finished 37th out of 2,200. I only signed up to run a half marathon, but because Mr. Geography lost his sense of direction … whatever. I ended up running the full marathon.
Finishing my dissertation and applying for jobs is all I can think about these days. And as I was running this year’s Fun Run, I noticed it felt a lot like working towards my defense and applying for a job. Think about it: You learn new things, delve into new techniques, push yourself to the limit, practice and improve for a really long time, and eventually it comes down to meeting expectations and doing better than your competition.
At the Fun Run, I lined up at the front of the race with a group of other fast runners, and we quickly pulled away from the rest of the field. By the first corner, I was in ninth place. I overtook a guy who started out too fast and couldn’t keep his pace, and another one who also couldn’t keep up with the rest. About two miles in, another runner, let’s call him Dr. Evil, came breathing up my neck. I tried to shrug him off, but he slowly inched his way past me. Energized by him, though, I up’d my pace and was now breathing up his neck! He overtook another person in a blue long-sleeve jacket, I followed. Why do you wear long-sleeve in a race?! Eventually I caught up with Dr. Evil, and we ran side-by-side for like half a mile, unable to pull away, unwilling to give in. Things stayed that way until the final stretch when both of us were overtaken by our fashion genius from earlier. Dang it! What’s more, Dr. Evil suddenly unleashed his last reserves, pulled away, and finished 10 seconds ahead of me in fifth place.
Losing on the final stretch, I’m sure we’ve all been there. But even more than outpacing our competition, running teaches you a lot about life and mastering challenges. I was disappointed that I wasn’t as fast as Dr. Evil or Calvin Klein, but in the end trying to keep up with them made me run faster and improve my time from last year by 30 seconds. This challenge made me become better. In grad school it’s often easy to be disappointed by comparing ourselves to others. But the key is to recognize our own personal growth instead of being put down because we didn’t finish first.
Other people’s victories are not my losses. And my losses don’t mean I’m unfit.
Running a marathon is no small thing, but neither is finishing a thesis or getting a job. It requires perseverance and a lot of outside support to achieve either of these. You have to manage your resources to make it to the finish line. Just like a cheering crowd can incite me to keep running when my feet hurt and my muscles are on fire, so can friends and family help us get through hours of tedious number crunching or stressful job interviews.
Running my first marathon was a unexpected challenge that I really wasn’t prepared for. But that’s life sometimes. Things can take unexpected turns, be harder and take longer than we anticipate. My dissertation certainly is, and getting into the job market will be, too. But knowing that I’m good at what I’m doing, that I enjoy running and believe in my own abilities, combined with the encouragement of those around me, made me achieve something that I had no idea I was able to do.
For the last two years I have been studying decision making in winter wheat farming in the Southern Great Plains. I want to help forecasters provide seasonal climate forecasts for farmers that do a better job of warning farmers of bad conditions, such as drought, extreme rainfall, or heat.
Now, seasonal forecasts are nothing new. The National Weather Service has been issuing them for decades. But farmers don’t use them very much because they are hard to understand and overall don’t contain the sort of information farmers need to make decisions.
So all we need are better tailored forecasts and crop failure is a thing of the past? Unfortunately that’s not quite the case.
Hailey Wilmer, a Ph.D. graduate from Colorado State University who currently works as a postdoc at the USDA Northern Plains Climate Hub in Ft. Collins, Colorado, and María Fernández-Giménez, a professor at CSU, studied ranchers in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona to gain deeper insights into the social dimensions of ranching decisions related to drought. The two researchers found that besides the weather forecast, decisions are often shaped by many factors, for example traditions, personalities, relationships and interaction with fellow ranchers, risk aversion, or financial goals of the individual rancher.
Conducting 38 interviews with male and female ranchers, Wilmer and her co-author found four reoccurring patterns of how these social factors affect decisions and adaptive actions to mitigate drought on the ranch.
1. Security over profit
Some ranchers, learning from peers and past experiences, prioritized maintaining a financially viable ranch over the long run by not overstocking their ranch in good times and maintaining feed and a minimum number of “seed cattle” even through bad droughts. “If you will stock conservatively when the severe droughts hit you will be able to stay longer and maintain your seed stock to where everyone else has already sold their seed stock or they are all leasing additional pastures somewhere else,” as one New Mexico rancher put it.
2. Facing drought with efficiency
To prepare for bad times, some ranchers use good times to build financial buffers that would carry them through droughts. During drought, they reduce the number of cattle or change grazing patterns so that existing grassland vegetation lasts longer. Although these ranchers tried to avoid risk, if they saw other ranchers succeed with a risky decision, they were inclined to try it, too. In times of need ranchers also help out each other, share expertise, or find additional forage. When the quantity of cattle went down, improving their quality was the top priority for most of these ranchers.
3. Diversified income
Not all ranchers were ranchers all their lives. Some bought ranches after retiring from another career, knowing it is a great risk. During drought, they relied on a range of income, for example on their pension, and they seem to prefer playing it safe. “I think we’ve decided that we’re going to play defense as far as the climate risk goes, as opposed to try[ing] to maximize stocking or to continue to grow or expand the operation,” explained one rancher. They also plan ahead, for example by using weather and climate data to bump up or reduce stocking rates. “We don’t like to do crisis management. We like to sort of prepare.”
4. Living with the “new normal”
The largest group of ranchers, thirteen, seem to have mastered the art of drought management, and was not shy to show it. They boasted experimental approaches to drought management, savvy business management practices, emphasized their successful careers as quality cattle producers and natural resource stewards, all while not relying on consultants or agricultural extension. “Trying something new” and “not being stuck in a rut” were their guiding principles. If drought forces them to reduce their herd, these ranchers, like many of their peers, try to improve quality. “If drought is going to cut me back two hundred calves or three hundred calves, or whatever the number is, I have to make that up with quality.” All this, however, seemed to be essential, as many of these ranchers said living in drought for them is the “new normal”. “Well, we kind of been in a drought ever since we’ve had this place.”
These findings show that decisions in the real world are often a lot more complex than we as scientists think. And it is a particular struggle for those of us who work in boundary organizations understand both scientists and users and to help both sides understand each other and facilitate collaborations. “This paper pushed me toward looking at how different groups ‘know what they know’ and how that influences not just management practices, but also how we interact and set goals,” says Wilmer.
Despite the limitations of this study — small sample sizes, for example, always make it difficult to generalize results to a larger population — it showed me how diverse and complicated the world of agriculture is, and how little we understand of it. Quantitative or technological approaches are not always enough to make a positive change in agricultural decision-making. If we want to help farmers and ranchers, not only do we need to know how to create better forecasts, but also how important these forecasts are among everything else that plays a role in the real world of farming and ranching.
Hailey Wilmer and María Fernández-Giménez (2015): Rethinking rancher decision-making: a grounded theory of ranching approaches to drought and succession management. The Rangeland Journal, 37, 517-528.
Photo: Toni Klemm
This article was originally posted on the Early Career Climate Forum in June 2017.
We’ve all heard the phrase that science should be explained on the level of sixth- to eighth-graders to be understandable for a general audience, right? But who has ever tried to explain science to actual sixth- to eighth-graders? I can proudly say now I did, and I’ve only suffered minor bruises.
A few weeks ago I was invited to a middle school in Norman, Oklahoma, where I live, to talk about climate change. Laura Vaughn, the school’s science teacher, and her social studies colleague had organized a two-hour guided inquiry lecture for their 280 seventh-graders, investigating with little guidance from teachers how climate change affects our lives and what we can do about it. Me and 11 other researchers and city employees had a table each in the school’s gym where we set up demonstrations to show, for example, how CO2 increases air temperature and causes ocean acidification, what tree rings can tell us about the earth’s past climate, and how clogged up stormwater runoffs can increase flood risk. I wanted to explain how climate extremes like drought, flood, or heat impact our agriculture, what climate change does to this, and what farmers can do to maintain a good harvest. Or, I should say, that was my plan.
Explaining my work to peers is often hard enough. But talking about it to non-scientists — policy-makers, managers, or the general public — always seems infinitely more difficult for me. To help me become a better science communicator, I recently started a course with Toastmasters International, a non-profit that teaches public speaking and leadership skills. (I blog about my experiences with Toastmasters on my personal blog.) In every meeting, I throw myself into situations that improve my ability to speak clearly and coherently, to spot unnecessary jargon and then avoid it, whether it is a prepared speech or an spontaneous answer during a round of questions. I also participate in discussions with students, talk to people outside my discipline, and of course present my own research to people outside my field. But unlike these situations, Toastmasters feels like a more safe environment to make mistakes. We evaluate each other, comment on grammar, use of fill words, applaud what went well and give suggestions for what didn’t. No one is perfect, and everyone is there to improve.
At a geography conference in Boston, I recently learned about the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. The ten-week long program, which run every summer, funds travel and housing for its participants, many of which applied at an REU program at a different university. The program doesn’t focus on collaborative research or communication per se but is meant to give undergraduate students a general taste of research and let them explore other disciplines, for example for graduate school. That said, some schools do run programs in which interdisciplinary work and communication are very much part of the deal. The REU program at the University of Central Florida, for example, sends student from different fields in groups to coastal communities in Belize to work with locals on environmental problems, like disaster management and ocean waste. Not only do students have to speak Spanish to participate. These supervised projects also train students to be open about their work and to avoid jargon when communicating with the public. A similar approach takes Clark University in Massachusetts with their REU program called HERO (Human-Environment Regional Observatory). Undergraduates study the impact of a tree planting program on wildlife, noise pollution, or air quality through tree surveys and interviews with residents, and present all their findings to the public, improving their own knowledge about human-environmental interaction and qualitative analysis, as well as their communication skills. At the University of Oklahoma (for example at the South Central Climate Science Center), REU students from any discipline can study weather and climate topics, like tornados, severe weather, or societal impacts of weather and climate extremes.
Back to our middle school event. With 280 rambunctious students roaming around my station for two hours and throwing questions at me, my brain was constantly in the ropes trying to answer questions like “What part of climate change do you work with?” or “What are some solutions to prevent climate change or even reverse it?” Often I just didn’t know what to say. Not that I didn’t know the answer. I didn’t know how to simplify it enough. To reassure myself I often ended with “Does that make sense?”, upon which one student admitted “Well, not really…” throwing the ball back at me for a second attempt. Convoluted sentences with more than 15 words seemed to confuse students, and most jargon whatsoever threw them off immediately. To buy myself time I often kicked the question back to them: “What do you think how we can reduce climate change?” — which made magic happen! They would suggest reducing pollution, I asked them how we could do that, and together we went from talking about air quality and eating more veggies to biking to school instead of being driven by their parents. It was mentally exhausting but instead of preaching the monologue of bad fossil fuels and polar bears far away, I used their knowledge and focused on solutions they can contribute to. It was mentally exhausting, but what they eventually wrote down were not my answers but theirs. Laura Vaughn, the science teacher, later emailed me to say that some of her students told her my station was their favorite.
Two weeks later I got invited again for presentations by the students. Each seventh grade science student designed a poster or powerpoint presentation of their favorite topic, and their social studies colleagues evaluated them. Many used the websites and online databases I had shared with the teacher, and some chose agriculture as their topic. One girl told me irrigation can be both be a blessing for farmers in times of drought but also a curse because it depletes the aquifer if farmers irrigate too much. I was delighted about how much they learned, and I was surprised how much I had learned, too.
All photos by Toni Klemm.
Welcome to part two of the series.
My overall goal of being at Toastmasters is to be less nervous about public speaking. And while the study book is great at teaching me all kinds of things that help me be less nervous, there is nothing more effective than to actually doing a speech. You don’t learn to swim if you don’t get in the water.
The ice-breaker (which I did several weeks ago, sorry about the delay) is a gentle way to get your feet wet without fearing to drown. It’s the first prepared speech everyone gives, and it’s by no means impossible. My assignment was to introduce myself (in four to six minutes), something we’ve all done over and over, but to create a talk with the basics of any speech: a beginning, body, and ending.
The key was to not get carried away in details be selective to create an interesting theme, like unusual jobs during college, places you lived while growing up, or stories about boy- or girlfriends in school if you feel brave. Some dry (self-deprecating) humor also never hurts. And thankfully, notes are totally fine.
I drafted my speech somewhere between midnight and 2 am (just like this blog post), read it aloud to my girlfriend to make sure things make sense and I stayed within four and six minutes, got her feedback, and improved over time.
I decided to talk about growing up in East Germany (communism always seems like an interesting topic in the U.S.) and what traveling around Europe and the world meant and means for my family and me after the end of the wall. You can read the final version below.
I’m happy to report that not only did people enjoy the talk (and asked me lots of questions after the meeting), but I was glad to see my jokes working and people laughing at the right moments. After four minutes and 32 seconds, everyone applauded and I sat down again, happy and relieved.
Presenters, me included, often make the mistake of speaking faster or skipping slides when their speaking time runs out. We can never present all the information in as much detail as we would like to. Even if we had all the slides and all the time, our audience would just stop listen. But simple steps like focusing on a few things and keeping a basic structure can help people remember what’s important about my research. And if they found it interesting, maybe they’ll ask me for more.
Toastmasters Lesson #1 , Feb 13, 2017
Growing up Behind the Wall
I grew up on the third floor of a farm house, surrounded by big trees and lush fields of green on the edge of a small town in East Germany, called Pausa. Making hay, feeding sheep, and walking to school, much of growing up for me and my younger brother meant being outside. My hometown claims to be at the center of the earth, the place that everything else spins around, proudly symbolized by a huge, rotating, stained-glass globe on the roof of our town hall and proven by the earth’s axis sticking out of the ground in the basement underneath it. We even have an organization that takes care of lubrication, the Erdachsendeckelscharnierschmiernippelkommission. (I’m going to make that the word of the day one day!)
Being at the center of the entire world, naturally there is adventure lurking in every direction. Sadly, our mode of transportation was far from ideal for long-distance traveling. This Trabant [holding up the Trabant model car] was literally one of two car models in East Germany, and with four people inside it felt about as small as this model. Of course, traveling in East Germany was also limited for another reason. Without formal invitation from a relative or friend “in the West”, there was no way we could get past the Iron Curtain. My mom remembered that every time her parents would take her and one of her three sisters on a vacation to Hungary, my grandma would point to the right as they went through Czechoslovakia and say to my grandpa: “I wish we could go to Austria.”
When I was in second grade, someone decided, for reasons that were beyond my little mind, to combine East Germany and West Germany, which I liked because it meant I didn’t have to go to school on Saturdays anymore. With no wall to keep us from traveling (and soon better cars, too), my family started exploring the rest of Europe. Five years later, when I was 12, I had seen Florence, London, and Stockholm and most countries in between, some of them even two or three times. In 1995 — maybe because we ran out of places to see — my parents decided to book plane tickets for all of us across the pond to North America. I had never been inside of an airplane before, so I was very excited. In fact, all of us were, so we kept coming back, and the next few summer vacations were filled with road trips through national parks, gorgeous landscapes, and buzzing cities with skyscrapers and lots of people. We were stunned by the Grand Canyon, which looks even grander when you’re little, we watched Old Faithful in Yellowstone, we drove across the Golden Gate bridge and around the Great Lakes, visited Plymouth Plantation, and saw New York City from the top of the World Trade Center, twice. The second time during a visit in 1999, but the first time we managed do get up there and back to the airport despite only having a three-hour layover at JFK. German precision planning. By the time I graduated from high school, I had visited Canada, Mexico, and 39 out of the 50 US states.
Exploring places must be in my family’s DNA. A few years later, before my mom went on a one-year journey across the Asia-Pacific region, my cousin and I hiked through a remote national park in Australia, with 40-pound backpacks and nothing but a small map with a dot that marked a cabin in the woods where we would spend the night. After finding our accommodation, by a pristine lake surrounded by mountains, we spent a night literally in the middle of nowhere, enjoying tranquility after a long day of travel.
I eventually studied — no surprise — geography, like my mom did, because I wanted to learn more about this complex world we live on. After seven years in classrooms, though, the travel bug bit me again and I ended up here in Oklahoma, with a lot more geography to study and a lot more places to explore.
As I am nearing graduation, I am reminded of the glass globe on our town hall slowly turning and watching the little dot that marks Pausa as it moves around, and being amazed by just how much of our world there is that I haven’t seen yet.
This is the first part of a blog series.
If you ever had to speak in front of a large audience or a small group of really important people (like say, your committee), you probably know how tough that can be. Talking coherently, avoiding fill words, and following a storyline or reasoning that people understand — speaking well is hard.
I realized how much I had to work on this for myself last December. I had applied to be a student speaker at the University of Oklahoma's annual TEDx conference every January. I’ve been involved with TED for many years behind the scenes, translating subtitles of TED talk from English into German, and doing photography at TEDxOU since I started my Ph.D. in Norman. This was my moment to shine on stage — and I failed big time. Despite planning and preparing for over 6 months, collecting information and developing a storyline, the audition session went anything but smoothly. I stuttered, lost my trail of thoughts, forgot key points of my talk, and even went overtime. Not surprisingly I was not selected as a speaker. What did surprise me, though, was that the selection committee liked my topic, science communication, and I got invited to speak at next year’s TEDxOU as a regular speaker.
All I need to learn until then is how to pull off the perfect TED talk. But being a good speaker helps for more than TED talks. I can become better at presenting my research at conferences, deliver elevator speeches, be more confident in my dissertation defense, or simply get a point across at a party or on the plane. So, in this blog series I will share some of my experiences, lessons learned, and funny stories along the way.
In mid-January, I decided to take become a member of Toastmasters International, a non-profit that teaches speaking and leadership skills. I joined a group that two of my coworkers were already part of, at first as a visitor, and after a few weeks as a (paying) member. (Just to be clear, this series is not sponsored or endorsed by Toastmasters. I’m paying my membership fees just like everyone else and don’t get any special treatment for writing about it.) Toastmasters is a bit like school for grown-ups. Our group is a cheerful mix of a dozen or so researchers, business managers, and retirees, and in each of our weekly meetings there are one or two prepared speakers, a round of table topics — themed questions on topics like traveling, Christmas, or gardening that people need to answer on the spot — and the word of the day, selected by a group member for people to incorporate into their speeches. Someone leads the meeting while others carefully evaluate all speakers, keep an eye out for grammatical errors, fill words, if the word of the day was used, by whom, and how many times, and most importantly of all if people went over their allotted time. Or under. The rotating schedule is meticulously planned, to say the least.
A few weeks after becoming a paid member I received my learning materials with ten projects on organizing a speech, choosing the right words, using body language to emphasize, or inspiring my audience. To finish all ten in one year I will need to do about one every month.
So much for starters. Here we go.
This article was originally posted on the Early Career Climate Forum in December 2016.
On November 2nd and 3rd, the first ever National CSC Early Career Training was held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. For two days, students from across the U.S. heard about peer reserach ranging from butterflies in North Carolina, paleoclimatology along the Gulf Coast, to the impact of wildfires on wild berries in Alaska, along with so much more. In case you missed it, Andrew Battles wrote a short summary a few weeks ago.
But because a picture is worth a thousand words, here is a short video I made showcasing the training to give you more of an inside look and let some of the participants and organizers speak about their experiences and the purpose of the training and of the research conducted at the Climate Science Centers. Enjoy!
There is this sketch of a Venn diagram with two non-overlapping circles, one being a person’s comfort zone, and the other one showing “where the magic happens”.
A few months ago, my advisor sent me to a conference in Salt Lake City that felt exactly like this Venn diagram. While many of my early career co-workers were at a science communication workshop at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, I was en route to a joint conference on agricultural and forest meteorology, boundary layer climates, and biogeosciences. The areas might not reflect it as much, but I was way out of my comfort zone.
And that was not the first time it happened. In October of 2013, I was at the 7th Graduate Climate Conference in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, a fun and relaxed student conference and one of the first conferences I ever talked about my own research idea. The only problem was, that entire sessions were dedicated to super-specific issues, like atmospheric dynamics, ocean biology, or aerosols. The three-day conference had one session on humans, climate, and policy, and a handful of posters about applied research (including my own). That was all.
What was I doing at this meteorology nerdfest? (Admittedly, New England in the fall is off the charts beautiful, so at least from a photographic standpoint it was totally worth it!)
What I didn’t understand in 2013 I learned this summer. After five days of talks about field campaigns, flux experiments, and instrument calibration, I understood that this work is not just essential in understanding how our atmosphere works or how plants react to global warming. This research can be the foundation of seasonal climate forecasts that researchers like me use to make decision tools for farmers.
As an applied, interdisciplinary researcher, I should be outside my comfort zone. My job is not only to understand what users want and how decision tools that researchers like me try to create are used (or not used). I also need to understand the work of modelers, statisticians, agronomists, or anthropologists, to apply their methods, to better judge which climate models or statistical techniques work best for me, to appreciate their work, or simply to speak their language and understand their way of thinking. Afterall, I might be using their work for my research, or even more so be there future collaborator.
This weekend, I am again at the 10th Graduate Climate Conference, this time in Washington state, presenting (again for one of the first times) results from my research. But between log cabins and cedar trees, this feels like a lesson-learned check. I’m still struggling to make sense of concepts, acronyms, and jargon, but not as much as I used to. My comfort zone became a little bigger. And as I’m listening I realize that these brilliant, creative, engaging, fascinating minds not only shape tomorrow’s climate research. They might also be the people I’ll be working with sooner or later.
Check out: www.graduateclimateconference.com
This post was originally written for the Early Career Climate Forum and posted in August 2016.
Earlier this year, I wrote an ECCF blog about a fall semester undergraduate class at the University of Oklahoma (OU) that taught students about climate science, the impacts of climate change, and that gave them a look behind the scenes of the climate negotiations at the Paris COP21 meeting last December.
Well, I’m happy to report that this fall this class is back — and it’s gotten even better.
Starting August 17th, the South Central Climate Science Center (SCCSC) will be offering “Managing for a Changing Climate”, an interactive class based on the experiences and feedback from last fall. “Participants will hear from a wide variety of experts from both the research and management worlds”, says Aparna Bamzai, University Assistant Director at the SCCSC and coordinator of the course. They will teach lessons about the components of the climate system, including the range of natural climate variability and external drivers of climate change, in addition to impacts of a changing climate on sectors such as the economy, policy, ecosystems, and indigenous populations.
The best part: this year the class will be available not just to OU students but also — for free, thanks to funding from USGS and NASA — to natural resource managers, tribal environmental professionals, and anyone else who is interested in the science and impacts of climate change, because almost everything will take place online, on OU’s interactive learning platform Janux.
Professionally produced videos will feature experts from across the south-central U.S., and participants will conduct readings and discussions on the online course page. All participants will be evaluated through online quizzes, while university students enrolled for credit will also produce individual term papers and — similar to the class last fall — a group project culminating in a mock negotiation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
To produce the class videos, the SCCSC teamed up with Next Thought, a company that specializes in online education and produces all of OU's online classes. On the course website, videos and other online content will be released successively as the semester progresses instead of all at once. That way class and online participants can engage in discussions about the same course material.
The class is open to enroll at janux.ou.edu. I will participate as one of the online students. I’m excited about this class, because it will bridge the gap between different fields: science, management, and policy-making.
If you plan to enroll in the class and what to share your experience in a guest blog post during or after the semester, please let us know via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook or Twitter.
Development of this course was funded by the USGS through the South Central Climate Science Center on Grant #G15AP00136, NASA through the Oklahoma Space Grant Consortium on Grant #NNX11AB54H, and the University of Oklahoma College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences. The contents of this course are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the funding agencies.
This post was originally written for the Early Career Climate Forum and posted in May 2016.
I recently finished an online survey of agricultural advisors in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado about seasonal forecasting for winter wheat farmers. Online surveys are everywhere these days, and with free tools like SurveyMonkey or Google Forms, anyone can conduct a survey. Preparing and conducting a survey for research, however, is no small endeavor and requires careful consideration. My survey, for example, took 3 months to plan and another 3 to conduct. Here are 6 tips on how to get the most out of your efforts.
1. Survey or something else?
Ask yourself: What information am I interested in, and is a survey the best method to get that information? Surveys work well with quantitative information that can be ranked, listed, counted, or compared on like-dislike scales. But surveys are not good for qualitative research, like descriptions of events, detailed anecdotes, or open-ended conversations. For this kind of information, personal interviews are a better tool. Analyzing interviews – conducting, recording, transcribing, and analyzing text – is also much more labor-intensive–one reason why interview studies generally have fewer participants than survey-based studies. The pros and cons of qualitative approaches are nicely laid out in Berg (2008, full references at the end of this post), a seminal book on qualitative methods. Babbie (2014) provides the basics about survey research (chapter 9) and quantitative analysis (chapter 14).
Also, discuss your approach with faculty, experienced coworkers, and your committee. I decided that a survey followed by a small number of interviews would give me the best of both worlds – a large, quantitative dataset to analyze and detailed information to explain some of the most interesting survey results, all while being time-efficient.
2. Survey methods
You’ve established that a survey is your method of choice. But which survey method should you choose? Many surveys today are conducted online as opposed to via phone or snail mail, and for obvious reasons: Online surveys are easy to disseminate – via email or social media – and they are cheap or free to produce (try Google Forms or SurveyMonkey).
Online surveys also deliver instant results in a digital format, reducing errors from digitizing mail responses. They also have lower labor costs than phone surveys while having higher response rates: about 25% for online surveys versus 8 to 12% for phone surveys, according to FluidSurveys.
Online surveys, as convenient as they are, can create biases.
Your target population might not all have internet and/or social media access, or you might not have a complete email list. These biases could lower the explanatory power and generalizability of the survey results. Biases can’t always be avoided, or avoiding them could increase costs. In any case, these limitations should at least be mentioned in the publication. My survey, too, faced the problem of internet bias, but instead of changing my method I decided to change the survey population. Instead of surveying farmers, a group that doesn't use computer and internet much, I surveyed corporate extension agents, agricultural advisors with desk jobs, internet access, and publicly available email addresses. They are also in contact with many farmers in their county, and thus can, to a good degree, speak for them. I couldn’t ask them quite the same questions that I would have asked farmers, but that was a compromise I was willing to make.
3. Survey Design
Ask yourself again: What am I interested in? This should help you decide what question formats are best: matrices, multiple choice, open-ended text boxes, Likert scales, images and sketches …? Text books can give you some direction, but think critically about what you read in papers. Was that really the best way to answer the research question in that particular case, or was it just convenient? Could I do it differently and get better, more robust results? Discuss your ideas with your committee or peer researchers.
My survey was modeled after focus group and interview research of corn farmers in the Midwestern U.S., which I adapted to fit my time budget and to answer my research questions. Surveying also means explaining differences in responses and, often, trying to confirm or reject a hypothesis. Why did some participants answer in this or that way? Because of their income, their level of education, their geographic location — whatever it is, make sure you ask about it in your survey in order to later cross-tabulate answers and analyze them for significant differences.
Also, think about the order of your questions and if you really need to ask all of them. People might be okay spending 10 or 15 minutes on your survey, but too many questions will make them frustrated and tired. Keep it succinct, but still ask everything you need. Let people know at the beginning how long the survey will take (pretests can help you estimate that) and include a progress bar if you can.
4. Question Language
By now you probably see that developing a survey takes some time. After weighing the pros and cons of the question format, phrasing, testing, and refining your questions can take weeks or even months. Which words should you avoid? The farming community in the Southern Great Plains, for example, don’t like terms like “sustainability” (which many associate with more government regulations) or “climate change”, for obvious reasons, so I tried to avoid them.
Jargon is okay to use, but make sure people understand what you mean. Consult experts to fine-tune the wording. Make sure questions are unambiguous, easy to understand, and check that answer choices cover every possibility. Again, pretesting can reveal most of these issues before you release your survey. The easier you make it for your participants, the more likely they will finish your survey.
5. IRB Approval
Getting your survey approved by your Institutional Review Board (IRB, also called Independent Ethics Committee, IEC) is required for all research on human subjects (meaning survey, medical, psychological, and other research on humans) that is intended for publication. You can read more about the IRB here, but in general, the IRB’s job is to make sure you treat your participants fairly, protect their information, and don’t harm the reputation of your university. The University of Oklahoma produced a series of short videos to explain the IRB approval process.
Expedited IRB approval for low-risk studies, like in my case with the agricultural advisors, can take be dealt with in one week. If your survey population includes children, prisoners, or pregnant women (so-called “vulnerable populations”), a full panel review is necessary, which can take months, and reviewers might ask you to explain and justify just about every detail in your survey. Some studies need approval by multiple IRBs, for example studies of Native American tribes, which may have their own IRB process. Last but not least, make sure your survey is finalized when submitted for IRB approval. Even small changes, for example in the wording of questions, have to get approved again.
6. Distributing your online survey
Congrats! Your survey got IRB-approved and is ready to go. Now to getting your survey out there. Depending on your target population, this can be a challenge for several reasons. For my survey of agricultural advisors, for example, I couldn’t spread it via Facebook or Twitter. I wouldn’t know who took the survey, nor would it be the best way to access my target population. My results would become meaningless. In my case, personal email and email lists were the only method that made sense.
There are several ways to increase the number of responses. Connect with your survey population by attending their meetings and introducing yourself. Reach out to trade publications and ask if they would report about your research and the survey you are conducting in their circulation area. When they do, you can link them in your survey invitation. My research was reported by the Kansas Farm Bureau and the Texas Farm Bureau, which I mentioned in survey reminder emails. Especially for out-of-state surveys, this can create trust among the people who are otherwise unfamiliar with you.
“Local champions,” people well known and respected by your target group, can also help you boost your response rate. I asked state and regional extension directors to send out invites and reminders on my behalf. Their name in people’s inbox (as opposed to my) most likely made people more likely to take time out of their busy schedule and take my survey. One time I sent out reminders myself. I got zero responses.
But local champions are busy people, too. Provide them with email templates, a list of email addresses (semicolon-separated, so they can be copy-pasted into an email address field), and a PDF with information about your research they can attach. Also, ask them to copy you in their email. That way you know the email was actually sent out and when. Collaborating with local champions will be additional work for you, but it is worth the effort. Without them I would not have gotten the response rate that I got. After three months of surveying and several rounds of emails, it was at just over 40%. And as a nice side effect, I had several people say they were very interested in presenting my results.
Lastly, timing is critical. Think about times when people are easier to get a hold of. Winter wheat advisors have a lower workload during in the cold months of the year, before temperatures increase in spring and farm work picks up again, which leaves more time for them to do my survey around winter and early spring.
Babbie, E. R. (2014). The Basics of Social Research (Vol. 6). (especially chapters 9 and 14)
Berg, B. (1998). Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences. Third Edition.
Edit (August 2017):
Pew Research published a comprehensive guide to designing public opinion surveys:
This post was originally written for the Early Career Climate Forum and posted in February 2016.
Climate negotiations, like last December in Paris, are complex, complicated, and not always fruitful. Last year, an innovative class for undergraduates at the University of Oklahoma gave students hands-on experience of how climate policy is made. This fall the class will go online for everyone around the world to participate. Here is my interview with the instructor and students of this class to summarize their experience with context to the recent Conference of the Parties (COP21) negotiations.
Last December, 195 countries came together at the climate negotiations in Paris to shape a policy agreement on greenhouse gas emissions reduction to keep the global temperature rise below 2ºC.
Now imagine this: young men and women armed with laptop and paper full of notes and scribbles, arguing about renewable energies, emission reductions, and carbon taxes across tables with signs that say “Egypt”, “Australia”, “China”, or “Tuvalu”.
What sounds like one of the sessions in Paris was actually a classroom setting, the highlight of an undergraduate geography class at the University of Oklahoma (OU) called “Managing for a Changing Climate”. The class, co-taught by staff and researchers of the South Central Climate Science Center (SC CSC) and faculty at OU, featured an interdisciplinary mix of human and physical geography, climate science, climate policy, and economics. Dr. Renee McPherson (one of the instructors of the course) explained that one of the goals of the class was to get the undergraduates more familiar with how climate policy is made, and why sometimes there is an agreement, like last December in Paris, and why sometimes there isn’t, like in 2014 in Lima (where last year’s climate conference was held). McPherson is the University co-director of the SC CSC and an Associate Professor in Geography at OU. She attended both the Paris conference last year and its predecessor in Lima (2014) as an observer. “Policy isn’t this quantitative process, that if you go through step one, step two, step three, you’re always going to get an agreement at the end.”
Leading up to its own (mock) conference, the class focused on hands-on experience in climate policy, but also featured traditional lectures on economics and climate science. In addition to lectures, students were assigned into teams to represent one of ten countries. Students researched the culture and background of their country to determine which one of the three prescribed policies – renewables, lower emissions, or carbon taxes – to advocate for and defend in a mock climate conference at the end of the semester. “The science has gotten better over the years, and more and more policy leaders are convinced by the science,” says McPherson. Indeed, last year’s negotiations were not so much about whether the climate science was real but what to do about global warming, how to work the problem, said Reid Detchon, Vice President for Energy and Climate Strategy at the United Nations Foundation, in a recent Climate Voices webinar.
For Cameron Conyers, a junior majoring in Environmental Sustainability, the mock negotiations made it a “top-notch class”. Teams didn’t just establish their own position, but also considered everyone else’s strategy in order to form stronger alliances. “No one wanted to be the loser”, he remembers. “We looked at targets of each of the other countries, met with their representatives, even outside of class, and hashed out side agreements to pull them onto our side.” At the end of tough negotiations, 9 out of the 10 countries voted for investing in renewable energies, and one voted for carbon taxes.
Back to the real world of policy-making, the class finished with a review of the conference in Paris by two of the instructors. Dr. Berrien Moore, Professor in Meteorology and also Dean of the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences at OU, gave a summary of the progress. Dr. McPherson joined via Skype live from the Conference of the Parties (COP21) negotiations to give a feel for the vibe at the meeting, which was overshadowed by the terrorist attacks that had France still in shock. “Any time that a delegate from a different nation came up and spoke, they always prefaced it by some comment [about the terror attacks], like their heartfelt feelings for the people of Paris and the nation of France,” McPherson remembers. In her opinion, the Paris attacks played an important role in the success of the conference. “There was almost a sense that a lot of the nations wanted Paris to have an opportunity to, you know, rise on the pedestal.”
“Managing for a Changing Climate” will be offered again as a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) this coming fall semester at the University of Oklahoma. To receive college credit, students need to be enrolled as OU students, but anyone with internet access who is interested can participate for free (though without getting credit). Follow janux.ou.edu and the South Central Climate Science Center on Facebook and Twitter for updates. The class instructors presented this course at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society. Download their poster here.
The course was made possibly by the generosity and collaborative spirit of the OU College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences, the Oklahoma Space Grant Consortium (supported by NASA), and the South Central Climate Science Center (supported by the USGS).