Three years ago, the City of Ashland collaborated with Northland College to have researchers and students collect water samples, test for E. coli at city beaches, and post advisories when necessary.

But one year into the project, said Professor Randy Lehr, researchers noted that the science alone was not enough. Lehr oversees the monitoring through the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation.

Even with signs posted, the public did not heed beach warnings.

Two years ago, Lehr reached out to his colleagues Brandon Hofstedt, professor of sustainable community development, and Matt O’Laughlin, assistant professor of psychology, to help solve the question of how to communicate scientific facts to the public.

Hofstedt, O’Laughlin, and student research assistants at the Center for Rural Communities surveyed beach usage and brainstormed ways to talk to the public.

The group most at risk—children—were most likely to swim regardless of warnings, Hofstedt said. “We needed to first, make people aware of the signs, and secondly redirect them to another place.”

The biggest barrier was that the signs blended into the background, he said.

Student research assistant Kaylee Thornley, who spent the last two years observing and surveying beach usage, came up with an idea she recently pitched to the City of Ashland Parks and Recreation Department.

She proposed that the city develop signs shaped like fish and that the colorful signs would communicate the information.   

“The idea is to draw the attention of the children—the ones who are swimming—who may alert their parents,” she said.

The signs will also suggest an alternative beach for swimming.

The effectiveness of this new approach remains to be tested, as the signs will go up in May 2016.


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