NRSS lab members

NRSS lab members

I am an interdisciplinary social scientist with a Ph.D. in Environmental Planning. I broadly study the human dimensions of natural resource management. My overlapping and complementary subject areas of interest are: (1) watershed management; (2) adoption of conservation behaviors / environmentally-friendly behaviors; (3) sustainable agriculture; (4) climate change and (5) public participation. I use a variety of different literatures to study these different subject areas. These literatures include social psychology, rural sociology, collaboration/policy studies, planning, communication and risk assessment. I typically use a mixed methods approach to answer research questions and employ a variety of qualitative and quantitative research tools, including surveys, case studies, and in-person interviews.

Yuling Gao at graduation

Yuling Gao, Ph.D. graduate

I strongly believe in extending our research findings to relevant communities.  The majority of the research projects listed here have a strong extension component.

Current Research

  • Common Ground Common Water: This research seeks to build a common understanding of shared water resources. Urban residents are generally aware of the impact of stormwater runoff on water quality and farmers understand that agricultural practices impact water quality, however research suggests that each group tends also to place some amount of blame for water degradation on other people and sectors. I developed a short film that highlights urban and agricultural best management practices in Northwest Indiana to be used to explore the efficacy of storytelling through film to foster a shared understanding of issues and solutions surrounding water resources. Overall, this research suggests that film is an effective storytelling device that may catalyze action toward inclusive watershed planning efforts. The film and water protection resources can be found here: https://iwrrc.org/commongroundcommonwater/
  • Developing and Evaluating an Outreach Campaign to Conserve Whooping Crane Populations in Indiana: This research seeks to provide insight into the awareness, attitudes, and behaviors of Indiana residents towards the critically endangered whooping crane, with particular focus on resource users of Goose Pond and Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Areas. Broadly speaking, the research will inform efforts to improve whooping crane conservation while also reducing the number of shootings of this species within the state.
  • National Water Quality Initiative (NWQI):  The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) premiere water quality initiative provides targeted technical and financial assistance for farmers and ranchers to improve water quality in high-priority rivers and streams.  The NRSS lab organized and facilitated watershed management forums in five NWQI watersheds across the county (North Carolina, Washington, Illinois, Vermont and Oklahoma) to gather input on watershed project design, marketing, deliver and implementation to identify success factors and challenges to effective implementation of NRCS supported small watershed efforts.
  • Non-operator Landowners and Conservation In Partnership with The Nature Conservancy: Using a mixed methods approach, consisting of surveys and in-depth interviews, this project aims at understanding barriers to adoption of conservation practices on rented cropland. In particular, we will examine how landlord-tenant relationships and lease agreements constitute both barriers and opportunities affecting the adoption of conservation practices on rented cropland. Through a large field experiment, this project also tests the effect that targeted financial, social, and legal/technical assistance interventions have on non-operator landowners’ likelihood of promoting conservation practices to their farmer-tenants.
  • Marginal Land Attitudes:  “Marginal” land poses both issues and opportunities and the mans of identifying marginal land vary between agencies and among farmers, as does appropriate management strategies (e.g., biofuel cultivation, removal from cultivation, or implementation of conservation practices).  Through an analysis of 70 farmer interviews across seven counties in three states, we seek to understand farmers’ perceptions of marginal land in general, whether they felt they farmed marginal land, and how they would manage marginal land.  Our findings will contribute to the understanding of farmer perceptions of marginal land, under what extreme circumstances farmers might bring such land out of cultivation, and what farmers deem as acceptable alternative (to cultivation) land management strategies.  These results will inform practitioners as they determine how to communicate with farmers about marginal land issues and opportunities, while improving the impact of marginal land on the environment.
  • Sense of Place: Previous studies have examined the factors that influence farmers’ adoption of various conservation practices and enrollment in conservation programs, but few have examined how sense of place plays a role in their decision-making processes. This study uses data from interviews and surveys conducted with farmers in three Indiana watersheds to measure components of sense of place including attachment, identity, and dependence to both ones’ farm and wider community and how these components relate to their conservation decisions.
  • Serious Gaming for Complex Science-Policy Communication at the UNFCCC:  The Gaming Climate Futures Project is an interdisciplinary effort to use serious gaming (involving facilitated computer-mediated negotiation simulations, fiction exercises, and climate modeling) to further the state of science-policy communication at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. By exposing delegates and other UNFCCC attendees to experiential learning opportunities, collecting supplementary surveys and interviews on knowledge gaps, communication, and information needs, we hope to shed light on the process of collaboration and compromise, future thinking, goalsetting, and knowledge transmission around climate tipping points (abrupt, self-driving shifts in geophysical systems that correlate nonlinearly to global average temperature increase) in the international climate negotiations community.
  • St. Marys Watershed Project: This interdisciplinary research in the St. Marys River watershed (part of the Western Lake Erie Basin) includes a social science evaluation, catalog of in-stream conditions and soil health monitoring to develop strong and productive partnerships with producers, conservation agencies and agricultural professionals. Using data from a watershed wide mail-survey and interviews with farmers, agency staff and crop advisors we are working with state and local partners to catalog current education levels, document existing education and outreach efforts, and identify areas for future watershed-wide outreach targeting.
  • Understanding How Crop Insurance Impacts Farmer Decision-making: As climate change creates more variability in the agricultural landscape, we are interested in understanding if and how crop insurance and/or conservation practices are being used to help Midwest farmers manage water-related risks. This project uses semi-structured interviews and surveys to address these questions.
  • Upper White and Big Pine Watershed Projects: The Upper White and Big Pine projects aim to better understand motivations to recommend and/or implement conservation practices as part of farm management. Using a mixed methods approach, the projects will focus on a broad range of stakeholders including farmers, crop advisors, agency staff, and others. The results of these projects will provide baseline information that will aid the development of collaborative efforts to incentivize future conservation programs.
  • USDA-NIFA Climate Synthesis: We are conducting a synthesis of the NIFA Climate Change and Agroecosystem Portfolio. This portfolio is comprised of competitive and capacity NIFA grant funded projects on agriculture and climate change from 2010-2015. Based on our findings from this synthesis, we will offer recommendations to NIFA that can inform how they invest in, and support, agroclimate work moving forward. Two online surveys were conducted. The first, conducted from November 2016 to January 2017, queried portfolio Project Directors on their project’s scope, successes, and outcomes. The second evaluated climate professionals within the portfolio and at government agencies on the key areas to focus future research, scientist responsibility, communication, and stakeholders. In addition to surveys, focus groups and case studies were conducted around the country for a more in-depth review of the portfolio. Products to date include:
  • USDA-NIFA Water Synthesis: In this project, we are evaluating the collection of projects funded by competitive and capacity NIFA grant funds from 2000-2013 that address water resource issues (quality and quantity).  This compilation is known as the NIFA Water Portfolio.  Ultimately, the results of this project will help us recommend strategies for NIFA program leaders to identify future project focus areas, as well as attributes of successful projects that NIFA might consider when determining which projects to fund in the future.  Descriptive reports of survey results from both competitively funded (n=389) and capacity funded (n=449) Project Directors can be found below.  An additional component of this synthesis is a survey of federal agency water experts in which we sought to prioritize, through consensus, perceptions of the most pressing water issues facing the United States.  Water issues related to climate change were identified as top priorities, as were water quality issues due to excess nutrients (for more information, see Phase 1 and Phase 2 Water Priority Reports).
  • Woodland Owner Education:  Despite significant investments in educational and assistance programs for woodland owners, relatively few have stewardship plans or participate in cost-share and technical assistance programs. This study uses data collected from surveys and interviews of past participants of woodland education programs to identify the role extension plays in their woodland management decisions and quantify characteristics of educational programs that are associated with desirable program outcomes. Results from this study can improve how professionals target and deliver woodland owner educational programs in Indiana and the US.

Recent Research

  • Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework (ACPF) Evaluation:  Using semi-structured interviews, we are evaluating attitudes toward and perceived usefulness of the ACPF toolbox. The ACPF is a new watershed planning toolbox which combines high resolution LiDAR-based elevation data, soils data, and land use data to identify conservation opportunities in fields and in watersheds. In this project, we are particularly interested in learning about conservationists’ and key stakeholders’ experience using ACPF output maps to plan and implement conservation practices. Lessons from this study will become the basis for training modules to help other watersheds effectively use the ACPF toolbox.
  • Beargrass Creek Watershed Project: Since 2014, our lab has provided social science data to improve the relevance and effectiveness of The Beargrass Creek Watershed Approach Project.  In 2016, we published a final report for the project based on survey and interview data.
  • Community-Based Social Marketing: Using survey data, we assessed recreational user and riparian landowner awareness and attitudes toward six federally listed species of freshwater mussels in the Tippecanoe River, located in northcentral Indiana. We have created an outreach and education campaign based on the principles of community-based social marketing to raise awareness about the conservation of these unique animals: Heart of the Tippy.  We completed an evaluation of the campaign in 2016.
  • Great Bend of the Wabash River Watershed Urban Resident Project:  Since 2006, the NRSS lab has conducted several surveys of Tippecanoe County residents’ attitudes and perceptions of the Wabash River and water issues, as well as their adoption of stormwater management practices such as rain barrels, rain gardens, and pervious pavement. These surveys help improve our understanding of how people’s perceptions change over time as well as the overall effectiveness of the Wabash River Enhancement Corporation (WREC) water programs. We analyzed four surveys – 2006, 2009, 2014, and 2016 – and found that residents’ awareness of water quality and sense of responsibility increased over time. This research gives insight into residents’ perceptions of urban stormwater management practices that point to some policy and programming tools that can be utilized to increase SMP acceptance and adoption (see Gao et al. 2018).
  • Fieldprinting in Big Pine and Indian Creek Watersheds: Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) launched two Fieldprinting projects in two watersheds: Big Pine Creek watershed in Benton County, Indiana and Indian Creek watershed in Livingston County, Illinois. Producers from each watershed met with local Soil and Water Conservation (SWCD) staff to enter field-level data into Field to Market’s Fieldprint Calculator and then met with a certified crop advisor (CCA) to discuss their results. Based on our observations of producer-CCA meetings in 2016, we provided recommendations to CTIC for enhancing future Fieldprinting projects.
  • Framing Conservation Practices Emphasizing Climate Change and Farm Advisors Recommendations: This project conducted a randomized controlled experiment presenting farm advisors in 12 Midwestern states (n=769) with an article about cover crops which emphasized either: 1) the benefits of cover crops; 2) the benefits of cover crops and its ability to reduce impacts of extreme weather events, or; 3) the benefits of cover crops and its ability to reduce impacts of climate change. We examined the effect of the framing of the article on perceptions of cover crops and the likelihood advisors would recommend cover crops to the producers they advise.
  • Measuring the Impact of Extreme Drought on Farm Advisors’ Perceptions of Climate Risks in the U.S. Corn Belt: This project is part of a longitudinal study of agricultural advisors in four U.S. Midwestern states through which we sought to understand whether the 2012 Midwestern drought was a catalyst event for change (see Carlton et. al. 2016).  In addition, we analyzed data from 36 agricultural advisor interviews to understand their perceptions of climate change risk and their related climate adaptation advice.  We found that advisors tend to provide advice on farmers’ short-term and immediate concerns and challenges, rather than longer-term climate risk management strategies (see Church et. al. 2018).  In the content analysis portion of this project (see Church et. al. 2017), we are examined how agricultural trade publications portrayed the 2012 U.S. Midwestern drought, whether “climate change” was discussed in terms of the drought, and whether these publications laid out transformative adaptation measures farmers could undertake in order to increase their adaptive capacity for future climate uncertainty.  We found that agricultural trade publications focused primarily on recovery  from immediate drought impacts, missing an opportunity of discussions surrounding climate adaptation.  A parallel content analysis of the Wall Street Journal and New Your Times is on-going.
  • Saginaw Bay Regional Conservation Partnership Program Social Science Evaluation: Through multiple surveys and interviews with farmers, landowners, crop advisors, and conservation professional this project is assessing the motivation, willingness, and ability of crop advisors to incorporate recommendations regarding conservation practices in their discussions with farmers. By examining attitudes, norms, and behaviors pertaining to conservation practices the lab will evaluate the implementation of a new public-private conservation partnership program that was formed to address water quality issues in the Saginaw Bay watershed of Michigan.  More information at: https://www.purdue.edu/fnr/prokopy/sbrcpp/
  • Urban Stormwater Runoff: This project investigates the factors influencing the adoption, maintenance, and diffusion of urban stormwater best management practices, including rain barrels and rain gardens, though surveys, in-person interviews, and on-site practice assessment.  The results aim to provide recommendations for improving local water quality planning and implementation. More information at https://purr.purdue.edu/projects/urbanbmps/view