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Stepping into the Arena of Climate Change Education

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I’m not a climate change science researcher. I’m an earth science educator first and foremost in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at my University. Until recently, I have avoided addressing climate change in the university courses I instruct for a number of reasons. While working on my doctorate in science education in the late eighties, I took some graduate glacial geology courses. I learned about ice age cycles, glacial features, and all the missing information and uncertainty in the climate models. As time passed I watched how hyperpartisan the topic of climate change became. Now I have just returned from the ScienceOnline Climate event in Washington D.C. sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and I find myself reflecting on my move into the arena of climate change education because of an NSF grant…

I have been committed to involving students in environmental, applied, local field work, so they understand the nature of science, develop some useful skills, and connect with their community. In working with teacher candidates I began to focus on phenology- the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events that are influenced by seasonal and climate variations. I see phenology as a way for citizen scientists to meaningful study climate change in their backyard- looking at calendar dates of leaf and bud out of particular plants. Following the right protocol, collected data can be submitted to the national phenology network, so participants can feel they are contributing to vital research. For example, sugar maple farms care about how climate change might affect collection of maple syrup for personal and economic gain. There is uncertainty about how climate change might affect maple trees – if the cycle of freeze thaw temperatures in late winter changes or is shortened this could impact the industry. For sure, maple sugar farmers have always been interested in keeping good records and so there is loads of data to analyze. Vermont data show a trend that maple sugaring is occurring earlier in the season, but predicting the future is complex because of the many variables involved like El Nino.

Learning about phenology (leaf out) protocols  at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire. (I’m on the far right.)

Learning about phenology (leaf out) protocols at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire. (I’m on the far right.)

As an educator I felt a worthwhile contribution to climate change education would be to create an online resource of regional phenology programs for classroom teachers. This work in progress can be found at: http://www.plymouth.edu/webapp/mahara/view/view.php?id=10181. An interesting anecdote about this effort is that as soon as the site went public a teacher from Karachi, Pakistan responded asking what kind of phenology study she could engage in while living in a large city. My intent had been to create a resource for local teachers; it never occurred to me that an international audience would find and use the website – one of the surprises of online work.

My next foray into climate change education was agreeing to be part of a collaborative effort on a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant looking at what prospective and practicing meteorologists know and think about climate change. PSU has the only meteorology major in New Hampshire and we are one of two partnering institutions involved in the NSF project. An interesting, unusual piece of challenging feedback for the investigators on the grant came in the form of a letter sent from NSF, stating that our proposal had reviewed well, but we were asked to clarify what sounded like a “biased” assumption that climate change involved anthropogenic climate warming.

The letter stated that it sounded like we had “overly pre-judged this aspect prior to gathering the data.” We assured NSF that the surveys we planned to develop were intended to assess climate change literacy. We’d be looking at a number of related educational standards and curricular guidelines to determine what students knew and thought about climate change when they entered and exited a program. My role as a science educator on the grant is to help with developing the climate change literacy survey to administer to incoming and graduating students enrolled in meteorology programs. We are just now analyzing results from our pilot survey and gearing up to disseminate the survey nationwide. One interesting finding from our very small sample size looks like students know that phenology has something to do with climate change, but they don’t know the term and want more knowledge about this concept.

The climate change literacy survey for meteorology majors addresses components of several national educational initiatives. The 2012 A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Cross-cutting Concepts, and Core Ideas, which is the model for the National Science Teachers Association’s “Next Generation Science Standards”, addresses climate change in the section on Earth and Space Sciences- Core Idea ESS3 Earth and Human Activity (National Academy of Sciences). This section starts off with a question-How do Earth’s surface processes and human activities affect each other? “Earth’s surface processes affect and are affected by human activities… Indeed, humans have become one of the most significant agents of change in Earth’s surface systems. In particular, it has been shown that climate change—which could have large consequences for all of Earth’s surface systems, including the biosphere—is driven not only by natural effects but also by human activities. Sustaining the biosphere will require detailed knowledge and modeling of the factors that affect climate, coupled with the responsible management of natural resources,” (p. 190-191). The science processes section of the Framework document includes activities that will help students think critically about climate change by: 1. asking questions; 2. developing and using models; 3. planning and carrying out investigations; 4. analyzing and interpreting data; 5. using mathematics and computational thinking; 6. constructing explanations and designing solutions; 7. engaging in argument from evidence; and 8. obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. The intent is not to create a herd mentality one way or the other regarding climate change but engage students in the issue.

My daughter on our roof at our camp after we installed solar photovoltaic panels where we are integrated into the grid.

My daughter on our roof at our camp after we installed solar photovoltaic panels where we are integrated into the grid.

At the recent, invigorating and optimistic ScienceOnline Climate event, I came away thinking about conversations on actions and solutions and management of resources. The US has the opportunity to develop an energy plan with incentives that promote a more sustainable lifestyle than is the current cultural norm- a lifestyle where it is expected that your home will be energy efficient and you will drive an electric car. We must start by eliminating financing as the major hurdle to doing the right thing for energy use. The PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) program let’s property owners fold the cost of energy improvements into their property taxes. PACE financing allows an owner to reduce their energy use on day 1, but pay for it over years. We can also raise the cap on homeowner generated electricity from solar or wind, and require utilities to carry net metered credits forward indefinitely. We also need to create incentives for conversion from oil to alternative heating fuels. With some proactive vision from committed citizens to articulate and implement such actions our leaders will have no choice but to follow a path to reduce our reliance on oil. On a personal note, my family has been fortunate to be able to take advantage of economic incentives to install solar hot water, photovoltaics, smart metering, and purchase a plug in Prius; we also chose to buy a house where we can ride bikes or walk to work and school.

One last point, carbon dioxide emissions were reported to have fallen in 2012 to near 1990 levels partly due to increased electrical generation by natural gas which offset coal use. This reduction in coal decreases acid rain, improves air quality, and stabilizes or even decreases the price of electricity. The rapid decrease in carbon dioxide was unexpected by either energy or climate change experts. A sound, sustainable energy policy that reduces energy use and increases use of renewable energy reduces CO2, without actually focusing on CO2. The benefits of such an energy policy means cleaner air, a healthier environment, less chance of catastrophic oil spills, and an improved national trade balance.

Mary Ann McGarry About the Author: Mary Ann McGarry is associate professor of Environmental Science and Policy at Plymouth State University, in Plymouth, N.H. Before moving to New Hampshire, she worked in the University of Maine System as a faculty member and researcher for over 15 years. After completing her doctorate in science education at the University of Maine in Orono, she founded and facilitated Maine Project WET (Water Education for Teachers), served as Director of Education for the Maine Lakes Conservancy Institute, and was the natural science educator for the Maine Department of Conservation. In New Hampshire, McGarry served as Director of Education for the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation. All the previously mentioned positions were joint appointments. At Plymouth State University her duties include teaching a project based graduate course on Social Marketing to Foster Environmentally Sustainable Behavior. She can be contacted at: mmcgarry@plymouth.edu. Follow on Twitter @MaryAnnLMcGarry.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 5 Comments

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  1. 1. sault 11:44 am 08/29/2013

    Great article. It’s nice to read about people doing what they can professionally and personally to help solve our environmental problems. However, I apologize in advance for the wave of climate science-denying trolls we have here on SciAm that will make odious comments on this article sooner or later.

    Link to this
  2. 2. rkipling 12:35 pm 08/29/2013

    Your contribution to SciAm online is welcomed. The views of more people educated in earth science on these topics is sorely needed. If you time allows, perhaps you can develop your own blog on this site? Until then, perhaps you will have the time to comment on some of the climate change topics on other blogs here. Your knowledge of phenology would have made your perspective on a recent post about carbon farms extremely valuable.

    Thanks for the link to your website. Numbers 3 and 4 from the table of contents there seem to be missing on your site.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Noone 2:58 pm 08/29/2013

    Sorry, but we really need to “start thinking” we will NOT drive electric cars. The carbon footprint of manufacturing and then disposing of batteries is enormous, as is the cost of power plants operating to re-charge them. No, solar re-charging doesn’t work in overcast areas and overcast seasons. Hydrogen powered vehicles seems the only sustainable solution, after the carbon costs of obtaining hydrogen in the first place and storing it in the second place become manageable.

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  4. 4. Sisko 10:22 am 08/30/2013

    Climate science is an interesting and complex topic. It is important to teach students what is known vs. what is believed may be true. Education of science needs to be factual and not based on someone’s philosophy or beliefs.

    Many scientists were firmly convinced that they understood the system well enough to recommend that specific actions be taken or that dire consequences would result. It turned out these scientists were wrong and they overstated their knowledge of the system.

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  5. 5. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:50 pm 08/30/2013

    I was going to comment in similar lines to Sisko. Far more important is that people are taught to think critically, search for original facts and publications, verify facts and tell facts from interpretation.

    Science is too often presented as a collection of facts given “to believe”, often mixed with simplifications and opinions. It may be better and easier for scientists in the short term, but backfires later.

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