Research Summary

Children’s constructive climate change engagement: Empowering awareness, agency, and action

Increasing children’s climate change awareness through a hands-on after school climate change program

Environmental Education Research

Climate change (CC) education has become more prevalent in schools throughout the United States. Currently, the majority of CC education is conducted in a science classroom setting, typically with middle-school to college aged students. While it is important to provide young adults and adolescents with CC education, it is essential that it is integrated into programming for all ages. Research has shown that children are capable of understanding environmental issues such as climate change, but the message of chaos and crisis that CC education typically conveys can result in anxiety and stress. To mitigate these emotional impacts, the author believes that educators must adjust CC education to provide participants with the facts as well as tangible solutions. This study sought to understand how children perceived and processed CC knowledge and awareness after participating in an after-school program on CC.

For this study, the researcher developed an after-school program called, Science, Camera, Action! (SCA). This was a once weekly program that provided hands on learning activities about climate change. The purpose of SCA was to integrate three components: CC education, photography, and an action project, such as reducing water usage or energy usage at their house. The goal was to provide a transformative learning experience for participants.

This study was conducted over 15 weeks in the Mountain Western region of the United States with three Boys & Girls club programs. Overall, 55 children (51% female and 49% male) between the ages of 10-12 years participated in the SCA program. Participants ranged from fourth to seventh grade and the majority were from low-income households. All participants completed surveys before and after completing the program, which included open-ended questions to understand participants’ perceptions of CC and close-ended questions to determine participants’ CC knowledge. Knowledge questions were selected from a national study by Yale so results could be compared with other U.S. teens and adults. The post-survey included two additional open-ended questions to explore participants’ growth in CC awareness. Additionally, the researcher held 11 focus groups after the program of four or five participants that lasted on average 40 minutes each. Findings from the focus groups were used to expand on survey results. The surveys and transcripts from the focus groups were analyzed for common themes.

Overall, the study found that the SCA program resulted in increased CC awareness among participants. Participants were also able to understand the local and global issues caused by CC, while still having hope and eagerness to actively work to protect the environment.

Participants’ perceptions of climate change, meaning their awareness and how they interpret CC, changed due to the program. The researcher found that participants’ time thinking about CC and certainty that CC is occurring increased post SCA. Further, the focus groups revealed that participants learned additional information about CC from various sources such as school, television, and zoos.

The researchers also found that participants’ CC knowledge significantly increased post SCA. Many participants scored, on average, higher than U.S. teens and adults when it came to general CC knowledge. Focus groups also showed that participants gained additional CC knowledge. Participants felt the program expanded on their prior CC knowledge because it discussed different materials than school did. Participants demonstrated scientific and social understandings of CC, which allowed participants to understand CC more clearly. For example, a participant explained that prior to SCA they did not care about CC, but after the program, they were able to understand how CC could result in detrimental impacts throughout the world.

When asked to describe how they thought CC would affect their lives, participants demonstrated awareness of the physical impacts, such as altered weather patterns, and social impacts, including changes to food systems, of climate change. They were also able to identify CC as a local and global issue. Because they had more knowledge on the issue, participants felt more capable to have a positive impact towards CC. The focus group revealed that SCA inspired and motivated participants to make change in their own actions. Participants reflected on their behaviors and how they could have a more positive environmental impact. Overall, participants enjoyed SCA because while it prompted participants to be concerned about CC, it also provided them with tangible actions to take.

This study had various limitations. The small sample size and location limits the generalization of the results. Additionally, all participants volunteered to participate in the program, which demonstrated their interest in the topic. Future studies with participants who are not previously interested to participate could have different results. Further, this study provided participants with advanced program materials, such as cameras and funds for actions projects. Additional studies or programs could yield different results if they that are unable to provide such materials.

The researcher recommends implementing CC education at a young age. They also recommend practitioners create action-oriented programming that empowers participants in their ability to make a difference. Hands-on activities can allow children to gain relevant CC knowledge, make personal connections to issues, and develop skills for a sustainable future. Additionally, it is essential to integrate both the scientific and social dimensions of CC in programming.

The Bottom Line

The purpose of this study was to understand how children processed climate change awareness after participating in an after-school program, Science, Camera, Action! (SCA). This study was conducted in the Western Mountain Region of the U.S with three Boys and Girls clubs. Fifty-five children ages 10-12 years old participated. The SCA program was a 15-week long program which integrated climate change education, photography, and an action project. Overall, the study found that the SCA program resulted in increased climate change awareness among participants and an increased eagerness to leave a positive impact on their environment. The researcher recommends educational programming about climate change should provide hands-on learning opportunities and action-oriented projects.