produced a workbook designed to encourage environmental stewardship and public participation at all ages.
Oh, Do You Know Where This Road Will Go?
will be distributed through schools in communities affected by transportation projects.
Advancing Meaningful Public Participation in Transportation Decisionmaking
Getting a significant portion of the public to participate in the environmental process is a perennial challenge for most State DOTs. Taking an innovative approach to this problem, the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) has designed a program to encourage public participation by educating children and their parents about the environmental considerations given to road building in Mississippi. Central to this program is a new children's workbook, Oh, Do You Know Where This Road Will Go?
The Challenge: Increase Public Participation
The narrow range of public input on past projects has been disappointing for MDOT staff. According to DOT officials, the only citizens who consistently participate are those who are overwhelmingly opposed to a given project. However, careful study of the reasons behind such limited participation in Mississippi has led to an inventive outreach strategy.
MDOT's efforts to gain public input on transportation projects has been frustrated by several factors. The first is the low level of adult literacy in the state (around 30 percent have deficient reading skills). MDOT must also overcome a negative public image. For example, staff note that minority and low-income communities continue to mistrust the public process and question whether it is worth their time to get actively involved. People seem to have a hard time believing that MDOT will take the environment into account and listen and respond to their concerns.
Another deterrent is the difficulty of effectively communicating a complex process for assessing environmental and community impacts. Kim Thurman, the Project Manager of the workbook, recognized the need for greater public outreach and became convinced that MDOT needed a way to convey the process in layman's terms.
Using the Workbook to Reach Parents
The workbook is designed to be an educational tool inside and outside the classroom. In the classroom, teachers and students will read the workbook together, and teachers will describe the planned transportation project in their community. Teachers will then assign children the task of interviewing their parents, or other members of the community, about the project. The students will use modified comment cards from MDOT to record interview feedback, and return the cards to the teacher, who will pass them back to MDOT. These comments will then become part of the public record. MDOT hopes that sharing information and gathering input in this way will encourage more extensive public participation.
The Solution: Reach Children and their Parents through the Environmental Workbook
MDOT designed Oh, Do You Know Where This Road Will Go? to overcome the hurdles that they identified. Because the workbook explains the environmental process in simple terms and is geared for children at a 3rd to 6th grade reading level, the DOT hopes to circumvent the difficulties posed by low adult literacy. Explicitly referencing endangered species, community values, and historic treasures, the workbook also clearly conveys MDOT's intentions to safeguard these invaluable assets.
The workbook is written in a "Dr. Seuss" rhyming style, with vibrant illustrations and memorable characters such as the narrator, Dr. Shelly, a Gopher Tortoise-a prominent endangered species in Mississippi. Dr. Shelly tells the story of how MDOT works with communities to take their concerns into account when developing transportation projects. The workbook also offers other fun and educational activities, such as a "wild critter" crossword puzzle and a tree identification game.
A consulting team with expertise in children's publications was selected by MDOT to design and write the book. MDOT staff worked closely with the consultants to ensure that they understood not only the style and tone that MDOT desired, but also the environmental process to be conveyed. The book was completed in June 2003, just three months after the project began. The total cost to develop the workbook and gain the copyright to the characters was less than $22,000. Printing is done in house and costs $1.30 per copy.
MDOT has been distributing the workbook, primarily at State Fairs and at public meetings and hearings, to promote their outreach program. 18,000 copies have been distributed in less than a year and a half.
However, MDOT anticipates that the biggest impact will result from introducing the workbook into schools around the State. Beginning in the spring of 2005, MDOT will link the use of the workbook with particular transportation projects that are entering the environmental review phase. Teacher's manuals will be tailored to emphasize the details of the projects that are in the vicinity of the targeted schools. MDOT expects that approximately one week before announcing a project to the public, children in participating schools will begin learning about transportation and environmental planning through the workbook.
The workbook has been enthusiastically received by the school districts in the areas with planned projects. Educators expect that it will help them teach children about real-world transportation projects and government processes, and are eager to receive the teacher's manual, which is in development.
Program Goals: Education Leading to Participation
MDOT anticipates a variety of benefits from the workbook program. The first is twofold: a greater number of people participating in the public process and the representation of a greater diversity of interests. The DOT also predicts subtle rewards, some of which may not be immediately measurable. For example, the most important benefit may be improving the public perception of the DOT, especially among younger generations. MDOT expects that the workbook will demonstrate that the agency is an effective steward of community and environmental resources.
MDOT's enthusiasm for the workbook is growing. Staff members will have a busy spring as they introduce the workbook to schools. Building on this momentum, MDOT staff are also discussing the development of a video based on characters from the workbook. The video would include a section with project-specific information for impacted communities.
In addition, word of the workbook is spreading to other States. According to Gary Strasburg, Public Affairs Specialist at the FHWA Resource Center, several States in the southeast are interested in implementing similar programs. State DOTs can contact Gary at the FHWA Resource Center at (404) 562-3668 to learn more about developing an environmental workbook for children in their State.
Environmental Division, FHWA
666 North Street, Suite 105
Jackson, MS 39202-3199
Phone: (601) 965-4217