Research Summary

The building of knowledge, language, and decision-making about climate change science: a cross-national program for secondary students

Addressing the Nature of Science through Teaching about Climate Change

International Journal of Science Education

Traditionally, secondary-school science education presents science as static, rather than dynamic; focused on inventions, rather than on building knowledge; and intended for a small, elite audience, rather than being inclusive. Those perspectives are important to unpack when considering students’ attitudes toward science, especially when addressing topics such as climate change, which can be charged in social and political discourse.

To investigate the influence of such perspectives on secondary- or high-school-level students’ attitudes toward and experiences with science, the authors developed and researched an eight-week science education program. The program, called Climate Exchange for Language and Learning (CELL), focused on nature of science (NOS) views and scientifically related decision-making, more broadly, as well as beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors related to climate change, specifically. The program used a literacy approach, including reading and discussions, to expose students to academic and scientific language, highlighting the ways in which science is a dynamic process. The CELL curriculum described science as theoretically based and building knowledge, emphasizing that, rather than being an elite subject, science is for everyone.

The researchers implemented CELL with students in four countries: the United States (141 students from northern California, and 54 students from elsewhere in the United States), southern China (30 students), New Zealand (25 students), and Norway (32 students). Students participated in weekly classroom discussions about scientific studies on climate change-related issues, followed by online discussions with their peers from other schools. Occasionally, seven scientists from various disciplines joined the online discussions to provide resources and prompt the students with questions related to the student-led commentary. The scientists, however, did not directly answer the students’ questions.

To present climate science while incorporating NOS views, the authors adapted 12 research studies, changing the text length and readability, but preserving the original research questions, figures, and tables. The researchers provided each classroom with reading resources, discussion guides, and access to the online community. The studies focused on five topics: global temperature change, sea-level change, human-induced greenhouse effect, biodiversity, and forest cover. Discussion questions focused on aspects of scientific studies, such as methods, results, and conclusion. Students were encouraged to compare study findings with other resources from their peers and the scientists, along with their own sources, such as personal experiences, websites, and blogs.

The authors conducted pre- and post-programmatic interviews with 96 of the students. In the interviews, the researchers asked the students the following two open-ended questions: What does climate-change science mean to you? and What do you think climate-change scientists do in their work? At the outset of the pre- and post-programmatic interviews, the researchers provided each student with the interview questions on a piece of paper. Following the interview, the interviewer asked each student to, “Please throw away the paper” in front of him or her. The student could then choose to put the paper into an easily accessible waste bin or a more-difficult-to-access recycling bin. This activity served as a proxy for knowledge of climate change issues, as well as a direct measure of propensity to conserve.

Researchers analyzed the interview data, seeking evidence of students’ NOS views and understanding, as well as use of academic and scientific words. They identified instances of NOS understanding, including: understanding the iterative process of science inquiry, understanding the principle of replicability, understanding knowledge of consensus-building, and understanding of evidence-based reasoning. While coding the data, researchers were unaware of the students’ identities or whether the data were from pre- or post-programmatic interviews. Before and after engaging in the program, researchers found statistically significant changes in NOS views and use of academic and scientific language. In the pre-interviews, researchers identified 35 instances of NOS understanding (as dynamic, all-inclusive, and knowledge building), compared to 54 instances in the post-interviews. In the pre-interviews, researchers coded 85 out of 1,125 words as academic/scientific; in the post-interviews, they coded 117 out of 1,114 as academic/ scientific. With the recycling activity, only 34.4% of students recycled the paper in the pre-interview, and 61.5% of students recycled the paper after the program.

Because of many intervening factors, as well as cross-cultural differences, the study’s design cannot establish a causal link between the program and the changes in students’ beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors during the time of the study. However, the findings do demonstrate that, on average, the students had an enhanced understanding of the NOS, climate change, climate science, and environmental conservation after participating in the educational program.

The Bottom Line

Secondary students can simultaneously learn about topics such as climate change while also developing a more progressive perspective on the nature of science. Many science teachers and environmental educators are interested in exposing students to scientific language and highlighting science as dynamic, inclusive, and aimed at building knowledge. Those educators may benefit from using programs and curricula that feature adapted scientific texts with authentic language and data, as well as discussions that are evidence-based, open-ended, and peer-led.