Where climate change meets NYC classrooms

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In June, scholars, social scientists, and journalists came together for the Chapman Conference, hosted in Granby, Colorado, to discuss the development of climate science and how to effectively communicate this knowledge to policymakers, media, and society. One section of the talk focused on climate change in the classroom.


Communicating Climate Science: A Historic Look to the Future

Photo: Chapman.agu.org

What do college students think (and know) about global warming? A case study

Daniel Bedford, a geology professor at Weber State University in Utah, conducted a statistical study of the student body’s knowledge of global warming. Background information on the 458 students he surveyed included their political affiliation, focus of study, and how close they were to finishing their degree.

Professor Bedford first asked the students what they thought about global warming. 19 percent of the students believed that global warming was not happening while 81 percent of the students were very sure global warming was happening. After asking the students what they thought about global warming, he tested their actual knowledge of the subject. Overall, the students were well informed on general global warming questions. 91 percent were able to correctly describe the greenhouse gas effect, 84 percent could describe the change in Arctic sea ice, and 84 percent for the processes behind increasing CO2.

As the questions got more specific, understanding dropped. Only 43 percent correctly understood contributions to sea level rise, and 55 percent knew that humans put more CO2 into the atmosphere than volcanoes. For overall global warming knowledge, 3 percent got an A on the test while 58 percent failed. The survey results were similar to the national statistics on global warming knowledge. Pew research reported a lower percentage (69 percent) than WSU (81 percent) on the percent of people saying they were very sure global warming was happening, whereas the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication reported that 41 percent of the American public believe climate change is happening and human-caused. The percentages from Yale may have been lower than Pew research and WSU’s because the survey included that climate change is human-caused into the question.     .

As expected, when taking political affiliations into account, students that identified as conservative were more likely to deny that global warming was happening. Students that identified as liberal or moderate were more likely to accept that global warming was happening. The study also noticed that if you are very sure that global warming is happening, you had better grades on the test; regardless of your political affiliation. The most important factor for understanding global warming is awareness. However, other studies, such as Dan Kahan’s work about identity and political belief, show that political and cultural affiliation is more important than knowledge, because people’s positions are influenced by the dominant group in their society. They do not want to express a view different from the dominant group because they are afraid of being rejected by them. However, the ideas of continental drift and evolution were once widely rejected ideas that are now accepted; hopefully climate change will reach that level of acceptance.

Bedford’s study does give hope that the congressional gridlock on climate change may end, as public awareness climbs — a related twist can be heard on a recent episode of This American Life on NPR, where Republican congressional staffers assert that climate change legislation could be passed immediately, if the set of Republican representatives that understand and trust the science weren’t afraid of a political backlash from their constituents. On the same episode, Former Congressional Representative of South Carolina — and conservative Republican — Bob Ingles tries to cross barriers, with his climate change talks to conservative audiences.

Climate and energy literacy: a new direction for science education in the twenty first century

Science Educator and writer, Minda Berbeco, spoke about implementing successful educational practices to improve climate and energy literacy. She identified three challenges to climate and energy education. First, there is no long-term curriculum, so governments reinstate and drop climate programs based on their budget. Second, professional development is necessary because professionals are not always up-to-date on climate education. Third, climate change is not applicable to students. Not enough effort and resources are being allocated to educating students in climate and energy. Students are also less likely to retain and remain interested in climate and energy education because they find no connection to it.

Berbeco also proposed questions to these challenges that we need to answer to promote a change in perspectives on climate and energy. What are the formal and informal education methods we must incorporate to increase climate and energy literacy? What are the social challenges we face? How can we use media tools for out of the classroom learning?

How is New York’s climate education?

New York is part of the organization for Next Generation Science Standards. This state-led organization is the first to make recommendations for national science instruction since 1996. The group is formed by scientists, teachers and twenty six state governments that advocate for common and consistent science learning. One recommendation is to include climate change as part of the curriculum.

Proposed science standards

There is also a surge across New York City in the number of school gardens. Last November, the number of school gardens increased from 40 to 232 within two years. The gardens of these schools aren’t just for display; many schools use the gardens to teach science concepts outside of the classroom. P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village will use its garden to teach concepts such as alternative energy; they have a small wind turbine and three solar panels. P.S. 84 also started a garden by partnering with Columbia University students.

Photo: Angel Franco/The New York Times

Which schools are implementing gardens to their curriculum and how

P.S. 84 and Columbia University garden collaboration

New York’s involvement in Next Generation Science Standards tries to maintain a long-term climate curriculum and raise the importance of climate change education. The school gardens in NYC provide a small environmental haven for students in a big city of steel and concrete. In addition to providing fertile ground for science lessons, the gardens also connect the school to nature. The presence of a garden and the student’s development with it promotes environmental awareness and appreciation that has applications outside of the classroom. As Professor Bedford suggested, experiencing and establishing environmental awareness will lead to better climate science understanding. This knowledge will fuel increasing concern about climate change and thus encourage people to take action. Hopefully by the time these kids reach voting age, Congressional gridlock will be over, and the hard work of changing our infrastructure to a sustainable standard can begin in earnest. But it’s good to know that NYC is already taking the right steps towards environmental awareness inside the classroom, even as the city confronts the future in practical terms with the mayor’s new report on Sandy and the future.