senior spotlight: danielle garten ’24

Hello! Would you share a bit about your background, and how you became interested in studying the environment?
Hi, I’m Danielle, and I use she/her pronouns. I’m from Baltimore, Maryland. I’m studying psychology, education, and environmental studies. I first became interested in the environment when I took AP Environmental Science as a senior in high school. I found the class so interesting, especially learning about population density and how it relates to sustainability and environmental justice. I think that unit helped me understand that social science is connected to environmental science, and it made me want to do environmental studies at Wesleyan.

What is the focus of your senior thesis? 
My thesis is through the Psychology Department. It is on children’s independent exploration, examining how far kids travel by themselves without their parents or with their friends. I’m looking at how this relates to spatial cognition, parenting styles, and cultural influences. It’s a cross-cultural study  between 11 to 13 year olds in the Faroe Islands and in the United States. The Faroe Islands is an autonomous territory of Denmark. They value free parenting. It’s very different culturally from the United States in the sense that kids are really allowed to travel where they want; because the communities are so close there are really no strangers on the island, so it’s very safe.

I’m recruiting kids in the United States for my American sample and I run surveys with both the kids and their parents, focused on their relationship with nature, different parenting tendencies, scales for well being, and different spatial assessments. I’m also doing a five-day GPS study where the kids wear GPS trackers and we analyze their movements through GIS.

How did you get the initial idea for this project? 
I’ve been in Professor Shusterman’s cognitive development lab since the fall of last year, and I knew I wanted to do some sort of original research. I liked the idea of recruiting families and getting to run a research process. I like working with older kids and coincidentally there was a study that she had started with two other professors from other universities on spatial cognition, and they had already collected the Faroe Islands data from two summers ago. Because I have a background in GIS and I’m interested in psychology and the environment together, it seemed like a good project for me to get involved in. I was on campus over the summer, and I did research in the lab, and I started to work on the Faroe Islands data.

Over winter break you had the opportunity to go to Budapest to present this data. Would you tell us about your experience? 
Yes, I went to a three-day international cognitive development conference at Central European University in Budapest. It was exciting to hear about emerging research in the field, and I felt like I was really able to understand the research. It was nice that my psychology background as an undergrad has provided me enough background that I was able to understand what was going on. There was a lot of cool research, and a lot of animal studies, and research about children and animals together. On the first day of the conference, I presented at the poster session my data from the summer that I conducted at Wesleyan. There were a lot of grad students and professors and researchers from across the world who I had a chance to speak to, and people seemed very interested in this research. It’s novel with the GPS component, and looking at overparenting and spatial cognition is a field that hasn’t really been explored yet. People were also excited to share their perspective on different parenting styles. 

Have you noticed that there are any major differences in the parenting style within the Faroe Islands versus within the United States?
It’s hard for me to know because I didn’t collect the Faroese data. However, it has been interesting to do Zoom calls with American parents and their children. If I am asking the child questions, sometimes the parents will step in after the child responds and correct their answers, even if the questions are about the child’s emotional well-being. There has also been previous research that the Faroe Island Children are great at spatial cognition, and that there is a smaller gender gap between boys and girls, which is not true in the United States. I’m curious what the findings will be for my age group.

Are there gender differences emerging within your research?
There are a number of different influences, but speaking very generally, parents do not let their girls travel as far as they would let their boys. As a result, the girls might not have as much confidence as boys do in being able to navigate spatially. They might have more spatial anxiety, which would contribute to them navigating poorly. There are two ways to navigate, navigating through the sun and through cardinal directions, and navigating through landmarks. Boys usually navigate by the sun, which is a much more efficient way to navigate. Girls tend to navigate through landmarks, which can contribute to more spatial anxiety. These differences show how parenting informs how children navigate, and also how comfortable they are in different places. Parents also may only let their girls go to known, nearby locations, but the sons can go on trips by themselves.

Are there any Bailey COE classes that you have especially enjoyed?
At Wesleyan, I feel like I have my developmental psychology niche and a niche in food justice. I’ve taken a lot of food justice classes in the Bailey COE, and I really enjoy them. I am currently taking a course called It’s All Happening in the Cafeteria: The (In)Justice of School Food (ENVS323), with Professor Caruso. It’s interesting to hear about not only the food justice aspects, but also the social emotional wellbeing of kids in the cafeteria. Another of my favorite classes through the COE has been Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems (ENVS282) with Professor Ostfeld, which provided opportunities to visit an apiary and  an urban farm. I’ve learned a lot about food systems in Connecticut, inside and outside of the classroom.

What are some of your areas of involvement on campus, outside of the classroom?
I’m on the badminton team and I’m a tour guide!  I’m also a teaching assistant for a science education course through the Chemistry Department. We facilitate Science Saturdays, where we host different events for Middletown children and families. Our November event was called Creating a Healthy Planet. We taught kids about recycling and made terrariums and let them bring plants home. We received support from the Green Fund to ensure that all of our materials were sustainable.

What are your post-Wes plans?
I think I’m most interested in the areas of environmental education, food justice, and programming or research. Post-grad I would love to be a part of an organization that focuses on children, because I like working with kids.

Is there anything that you would tell younger students who might have similar interests to you, or advice you would give yourself as a freshman?
I think specifically for environmental studies majors: There’s a wide range of classes available and it’s really fun to get a broad overview of environmental studies. You should try everything. That goes beyond just class, too; try all the clubs you can, go to the film series, find ways to take advantage of being in such a close knit space. Being in college is an amazing opportunity to live with your friends, and so really take advantage of the community that is part of your college experience.

I would like to shout out my housemates, Serena and Bella, who I have been able to take my senior ENVS section with this semester. I would also like to highlight Professor Dan Griffith, who is helping me with my GIS work. I have really appreciated his help and guidance throughout the process of working on my senior thesis.