Date of Award

May 2020

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


John W. Tillotson


harmful algal blooms, instructional strategies, misconceptions, science literacy

Subject Categories



Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are a growing concern in the US and abroad. Persistent misconceptions regarding HABs can increase the negative effects of bloom events by decreasing the effectiveness of communication efforts and impeding mitigation, monitoring, and recovery efforts. Addressing the misconceptions of diverse audiences has remained a prominent barrier in effectively communicating HABs and working towards HABs literacy. Undergraduates are a target audience for HABs outreach. However, there is a lack of information about the antecedents that influence their misconceptions related to HABs and efforts to address their misconceptions may not be as successful or engaging as they could be.

This study looked at undergraduate students’ topic interest, topic knowledge, and attitudes regarding HABs. The sample population for this study consisted of n=212 participants; n=50 were science majors and n=157 were non-science majors. Quantitative data were gathered from participants’ survey responses. Qualitative data were gathered from individual semi-structured interviews, n=6. The quantitative data were the main focus of this study and were statistically analyzed using ANOVA and multiple regression. Also, the interaction between topic interest and topic knowledge was graphed with relation to attitudes towards HABs. The qualitative data represented a smaller portion of this study’s focus. Interview responses were grouped by participant and question, then summarized based on learner characteristics, prior knowledge, motivation, and preference for HABs resource design.

In general, participant topic interest and topic knowledge scores indicated that they had generally low interest in HABs, and low conceptual and factual knowledge related to HABs. Science majors had slightly higher interest and knowledge levels than did non-science majors. The findings of this study indicated that college major did not have a statistically significant effect on the study populations’ attitudes towards HABs.

Topic knowledge was a better predictor of risk attitudes. The relationship between topic interest and risk depended on students’ level of topic knowledge and a stronger relationship was observed at lower, rather than at higher, levels of topic knowledge. Participants’ topic interest and topic knowledge significantly interacted to predict risk attitudes.

Both topic interest and topic knowledge were predictors of cause and effect attitudes; however, topic interest was a stronger predictor. The relationship between topic interest and attitudes towards HABs causes and effects depended only slightly on students’ level of topic knowledge, with a stronger relationship emerging between topic interest and cause and effect at lower, rather than at higher, levels of topic knowledge.

Participants who had heard of HABs reported learning about the topic from: (a) news or websites; (b) high school biology; (c) living in an area prone to HABs or; (d) experiencing a bloom event while traveling. Participants reported their sources of motivation for engaging with the topic were related to: (a) a belief that research is important; (b) interest in other environmental issues; (c) social context; (d) self-efficacy, and; (e) incentives. They suggested that to best engage undergraduates in HABs, the following strategies should be used: (a) social media; (b) human stories and data; (c) text; (d) case studies, and; (e) classroom instruction that teaches students how to take action on the topic. Given participant suggestions, some examples of appropriate instructional resources include, refutational texts, socio-biological case-based learning, and a socio-scientific issues framework.

HABs need to be framed in a way in which students can clearly see that it is a topic that is personally relevant to them and educators need to specifically address misconceptions that may contribute to inaccurate beliefs about the risks of HABs. Given the negative consequences related to bloom events and the fact that there is no one solution to HABs issues and no known solution to keeping HABs from occurring, seeking to foster functional HABs literacy is the most viable solution for managing HABs issues now and in the future.


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Available for download on Sunday, August 15, 2021

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