Research Summary

A design-based approach to fostering understanding of global climate change

Continuous Refinement Improves Curriculum Effectiveness

International Journal of Science Education

Complex concepts such as global climate change can be difficult to comprehend, but when guided by effective educational tools and lessons, students can begin to understand such systems. This study’s authors designed and tested two versions of computer-based lessons featuring interactive visualizations, which were intended to help middle school students understand factors involved in climate change. The researchers used feedback from the first round of implementation to improve the version used in the second round, a design-based approach they referred to as “iterative refinement.”

The participants in the study were 186 sixth-grade students from culturally diverse classrooms in the U.S., taught by three middle school teachers. Some students interacted with an original version of the lessons, Global Climate Change Unit 1 (GCC1), and others used the modified design, GCC2. GCC1 was itself a redesign of an existing computer-based climate change education unit called Global Warming. The redesign was created in partnership between the paper authors, teachers, technologists, content experts, and other researchers at a retreat that reviewed work from the global warming unit. A major focus of the redesign was incorporating “inquiry learning.” Inquiry learning encourages students to generate and test ideas, conduct investigations, and organize problem-solving techniques, and the authors incorporated these practices into the software. The lessons included visualizations and correlated scientific concepts with experiences visible and relevant to the participants.

GCC2 was based on feedback the researchers received from teachers and students after the first classroom implementation of GCC1. GCC2 revised several activities within the program, with the aim to increase the emphasis on energy transfer and transformation and to improve the comprehensibility of some of the visualizations.

To examine the effectiveness of the lessons, the researchers administered embedded assessments, pre- and post-tests, and coded student explanations of scientific phenomena with a rubric to compare student understanding before and after completing the lessons.

Assessment results indicated greater student understanding of aspects of global climate change after interacting with either version of the lessons. GCC2 students in general had greater improvement in pre- and post-test scores. GCC2 students also gained a more integrated understanding than GCC1 students, mentioning energy transformations more frequently and giving responses that showed understanding of cause-and-effect relationships in the atmosphere.

The Bottom Line

Instructional activities that encourage students to generate and test ideas, conduct investigations, and organize problem-solving strategies help increase student understanding, making it possible to learn about complex systems and concepts such as global climate change. Iterative refinement of lessons during the design and development phase helps create lessons that are more effective in reaching educational goals. Findings such as these—related both to the curriculum content and structure, as well as to the design process—can help guide the development of more effective science activities and lessons that deal with complex, systems-based environmental issues and that take into account important considerations related to assessment and evaluation.