Current Project Summaries

Below is a list of current research being conducted by ESS Faculty and Students.


Restoring Landscapes in the Context of Environmental Change – A Mental Models Analysis

Contact: Dr. Eric Toman, or Emily Hutchins,

While many studies have examined the ecological aspects of forest restoration, limited research has considered how those involved in making collaborative restoration decisions conceptualize the concept. These conceptualizations can have significant implications for the development of restoration goals, the level of agreement or conflict among participants, and how restoration activities are carried out on the ground. As a result, we are helping to address this gap by using a mental model approach to identify and compare how decision makers are thinking about forest restoration at three sites participating in the USDA Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP).  

Social and Ecological Aspects of Management for Wildlife in Fire-Dependent Forest Ecosystems

Contact: Dr. Eric Toman, or Shelby Weiss, MS Candidate,

This study explores factors of decision-making for managers of two Federally endangered forest birds relying on fire-dependent ecosystems in the United States: the red-cockaded woodpecker (Leuconotopicus borealis) within longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) ecosystems in the Southeast and the endangered Kirtland’s warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) within jack pine (Pinus banksiana) ecosystems in northern Michigan. By comparing what drives management decisions for these species, our objective is to contribute knowledge on how natural resource managers balance ecosystem function with a variety of other factors in selecting their conservation actions for fire-dependent species.

Measuring the Environmental Efficiency of Well-being in Columbus, Ohio

Contact: Dr. Jeremy Brooks, or Kelly Claborn, MS Candidate,

The relationship between economic growth, human well-being, and environmental degradation has largely been explored at the macro level using aggregate, national-level data.  However, we lack an understanding of whether and how individual well-being can be enhanced in an environmentally sustainable way at the local level, and the contexts in which this is the case.  This long-term study will generate insights into (i) the relationship between household income, overall well-being, and overall environmental impact (i.e. does environmental impact decline at higher levels of well-being?),  (ii) why some individuals have high well-being with low environmental impact, and (iii) which specific environmentally-friendly behaviors contribute to aspects of well-being. The ultimate objectives of this research are to develop an understanding of which behaviors and consumption patterns enhance well-being and reduce environmental impacts, and to use this understanding to help local planners and decision-makers devise policies and develop infrastructure that achieves these dual sustainability goals.

Measuring Status Perceptions to Improve Behavioral Change Strategies

Contact: Dr. Jeremy Brooks, or Matheus De Nardo, MS Candidate, 

This study explores the perceived status associated with a variety of pro-environmental behaviors among individuals who differ in their environmental orientation. Perceptions of status are important because associations with low status are a barrier to behavior adoption and associations with high status increase the behavior adoption. Using a mixed methods approach, we examined (i) how individuals define and characterize social status and (ii) variation among groups in how they rate the status signal associated with a range of environmental behaviors. This study will provide insights into subtle differences in how different social groups view environmental behaviors. Additionally, the results of the study will have implications for whether and why individuals in both groups might adopt these behaviors and the mechanisms through which they spread.

Exploring the Role of Value Orientations in Framing of Human-Wildlife Interactions

Contact: Dr. Alia Dietsch, or Colleen Hartel, MS Candidate, 

This study examines the role of wildlife value orientations in framing of human interactions with wildlife. In particular, we investigate responses to interactions that are typically perceived as “negative” or conflict (e.g., livestock depredation, crop damage, personal property destruction). We expect that wildlife value orientations will influence individuals’ reporting of events, including which interactions are perceived as conflict and what drives these types of interactions near the home. Understanding how cognitive factors play a role in individuals’ perceptions of human-wildlife interactions can inform development of management and mitigation strategies aimed at reducing a range of negative interactions. 

Childhood Experiences in Nature: Impacts Across the Life Span

Contact: Dr. Kristi Lekies,

This ongoing research examines a range of free play, educational, and recreational activities in childhood and their impacts on environmental attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions of nature in young adulthood.  Of particular interest are direct, hands-on experiences with nature, collecting items from nature such as rocks, shells, berries, and insects, and current involvement in outdoor activities.  

Climate Change, Mitigation, and Adaptation in Corn-Based Cropping Systems – Evaluation of Educational Activities

Contact: Dr. Kristi Lekies,

This five-year multistate project focuses on climate adaptation and mitigation strategies in agricultural production and involves over 50 faculty from 9 states, as well as a large group of graduate students, postdoctoral associates, field specialists, and academic staff.   Research activities encompass soil quality, water quality, crop production, farmers’ perspectives on climate change, and training future scientists.  The evaluation component examines educational activities including a webinar series, climate camp for high school students and teachers, and a graduate level course on climate change.  The project involves interaction with scientists in a diverse array of fields including agronomy, hydrology, sociology, economics, climatology, and other fields. 

Connecting Young Children with Nature

Contact: Dr. Kristi Lekies,

This study examines the role that early childhood programs can play in connecting preschool-aged children with nature.  Past research has indicated a broad range of benefits for children, including increased physical activity, stress reduction, and environmental concern in later life. Research questions will focus on indoor and outdoor learning opportunities, the value of outdoor play and learning, and features of outdoor play areas and neighborhoods in which child care centers are located.  These questions are being investigated with surveys of child care programs across Ohio about opportunities to engage children with nature inside and outside of the classroom.  

Hometown Community Sentiment: Exploring the Role of Youth Civic Engagement and Childhood Place Experiences

Contact: Dr. Kristi Lekies,

Outmigration of youth from rural communities has been a longstanding concern for rural communities.  This area of ongoing research focuses on two areas:  1) Hometown attachment among college students, including continued interest and involvement after leaving home; and 2) attachment to the state of Ohio.  This study will allow for comparisons of rural, urban, and suburban youth and help to identify individual and community characteristics, as well as place experiences, that contribute to feelings of attachment and interest in returning home or staying in Ohio after graduation.  

Exploring the Role of Sustainable Agriculture Organizations in On-Farm Work Experiences

Contact: Dr. Kristi Lekies, or Stacy Haught, MS Candidate,

This thesis project examines the role that sustainable agriculture organizations can play in connecting willing workers and agriculturalists via on-farm apprenticeships, internships, and volunteer positions. Research questions will focus on the prevalence of on-farm work experiences across regions of the United States, perceived benefits of on-farm work experiences, and challenges to the development of facilitation programming. These questions are being investigated with a survey of sustainable agriculture organizations across the United States.

Measuring and Explaining Levels of Connection to Nature

Contact: Dr. Kristi Lekies,  or Jed Brensinger, MS Candidate,

This study focuses on the concept of ‘connection to nature’ and its relationship with measures of environmental values, motives, and behaviors. In doing so it compares implicit and explicit measures of connection to nature in an attempt to improve the validity of these measures. Utilizing a known-group sample comparison this study will examine the Implicit Association Test‘s (IAT-Nature) ability to capture different levels of connection to nature. Additionally the information gained through participant self-report will be used in developing models that explain one’s level of connection to nature based upon demographic and behavioral variables.   

People, Climate Change and Lake Erie

Contact: Dr. Robyn Wilson,

This NSF-funded Coupled Natural-Human Systems project focuses on individual decision-making processes related to the environmental conditions in Lake Erie and the associated provision of ecosystem services.  The four-year research project involves six Ohio State departments and Case Western Research University, with the goal of understanding the links between people’s perceptions of Lake Erie, their actions related to protecting water quality, and the ecological health of the lake.  The researchers will link behavioral, hydrological and ecological models to predict the effects of these perceptions on future land management decisions and downstream ecosystem services under various climate change scenarios.  The project will address the question of whether or not changes in upstream human behavior can mitigate some of the impacts of climate change on the downstream lake ecosystem. For more information, visit

Wildfire Evacuation Decision-making

Contact: Dr. Robyn Wilson, or Hugh Walpole, MS Candidate,

This project is focused on exploring how homeowners make decisions to evacuate or stay and defend their homes when threatened by wildfire. There is a particular focus on identifying motivations to wait for more information before committing to a course of action and developing communication strategies to reduce this waiting behavior.