Climate Science Education

data visualization showing sea surface temperature displayed on a 2D rendering of the globeThe Earth’s changing climate is placing new and urgent demands on both the STEM workforce and the general public, underscoring the importance of high-quality climate science education that draws on knowledge and skills taught across STEM disciplines. This Spotlight highlights projects in the DRK-12 portfolio that are developing innovative approaches to understanding and examining climate-related phenomena and their potential impact on populations and ecosystems, as well as projects developing strategies and solutions that promote social justice and environmental resilience. It also features a blog by Leigh Peake, who discusses the power of community engagement around climate change and climate science education.

In this Spotlight:

Blog | Connecting Climate & Community: Enhancing Understanding and Use of Scientific Models Through Community Engagement

Leigh Peake, Chief Education Officer, Gulf of Maine Research Institute

Leigh Peake

Since 2005, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) has conducted interdisciplinary research on the Gulf of Maine ecosystem by collaborating with the communities whose lives and livelihoods depend on that ecosystem. An extraordinary marine heatwave in 2012 made apparent that community-engaged research would be critical to supporting resilience given the rapidity of ocean warming in our region. Species were adapting and changing faster than more traditional scientific approaches could document. As a result, climate change has become the centerpiece of GMRI’s outreach and education with a wide variety of audiences -- whether fishers and seafood professionals adjusting to shifting species dynamics, municipalities facing the impacts of sea level rise, or in- and out-of-school educators engaging the next generation of ecosystem stewards.

As I reflect on a decade of climate-focused education, a universal lesson emerges: our individual and collective ability to both produce and make sense of models underpins our ability to make sense of climate change forecasts and support effective decision making for resilience. The DRK-12 community has an opportunity...Read more.

Featured Projects

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CAREER: Transforming Science Teaching and Learning through Empowering Teachers and Students as Climate Justice Action Researchers and Change Agents

PI: Tammie Visintainer
STEM Disciplines: Climate justice with a focus on urban and extreme heat; Science disciplines: Physics, chemistry, biology, climate science, earth science; Outside STEM: History, social studies, ethnic studies
Grade Levels: 6-12
Target Audience: Middle and high school science teachers and students, community members, school administrators, policymakers

Project Description: This project reimagines science teaching and learning in secondary schools by supporting teachers and students as climate justice action researchers and change agents in their school communities. In order to address the inter-related issues of racial justice in science education and climate justice in minoritized communities, this project explores questions including: What is climate justice? What are urban heat islands? What communities are most vulnerable to climate change impacts and why? What scientific, mapping, and community data can students collect to investigate heat equity issues and construct community stories? How can art/science activism be used to generate awareness and create change? Project components include: 1) Graduate course in science education that explores climate justice at the intersection of history, race, place, and the environment; 2) Summer Institute where science teachers gain the content knowledge, research practices, and critical pedagogies needed to design NGSS-aligned curricular units around local issues of urban/extreme heat; and 3) Inquiry Cycle during the school year while teachers implement the units they designed. This project is grounded in the powerful relationships between learning and identity construction in science, and supports students as scientists and knowledge producers who use science and the arts as tools to conduct community-based science research, create innovative community science stories, and advocate for change.

Opportunities & Challenges in Climate Science Education: A challenge in STEM education is that science is commonly taught as separate from historical, social, political, and cultural dimensions. However, to fully understand and derive sustainable solutions to pressing climate justice issues, transdisciplinary engagement is essential, including explorations of historical racial residential segregation in the U.S. (i.e., who lives where and why) and present-day implications for environmental and climate justice. This project addresses these issues by leveraging the phenomena-based approach to NGSS-aligned science teaching and learning as an opportunity to explore the central science phenomena of urban heat islands from a transdisciplinary perspective. By examining the science of urban and extreme heat, the benefits of trees and greenspace, and sustainable solutions, along with the historical and present-day intersections of race, place, community health, and the environment, this project provides a transformative approach to secondary school science that fosters critical scientific literacy development and supports students as learners and doers of science and change agents in their communities.

Addressing DEIJ Through Climate Science Education: This project centers issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in climate science education at several grain sizes. First, the topic of urban heat islands is explored from a foundation of racial residential segregation in the U.S. and implications for heat equity (e.g., present day urban heat islands map directly on to formerly redlined areas). Second, the graduate course in science education and teacher Summer Institute take a transdisciplinary approach to the central science phenomena of urban heat islands and engage teachers in historical Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) mapping and contemporary questions of what reparations in minoritized communities might look like specific to climate justice. Third, I recruit teachers for the Summer Institute/Inquiry Cycle who were former students in the justice-centered secondary science methods course I teach in the single-subject credential program at my university and are now practicing teachers in public schools serving minoritized student populations. Finally, the project's approach to climate justice action research combines elements of youth participatory action research and community-based science. This centers a youth-based approach to science teaching and learning in schools and elevates the voices and stories of minoritized communities.

Products: This project is in the first of four cycles and does not yet have products for dissemination. Follow this project for products including a project website, open-access climate justice action research curricular units, and publications related to the teaching of climate justice.

Climate Education Pathways

Climate Education Pathways

PI: Lindsey MohanCoPIs: Emily Harris, Frank Niepold, Catherine Stimac
STEM Disciplines: Climate science
Grade Levels: 9-12
Target Audience: High school teachers and students

Project Description: Climate change is impacting communities in varied ways, and learning about these impacts should be community-specific, too. In the Climate Education Pathways project, we are investigating how to support teachers to localize a climate change storyline unit. Localized approaches to climate change education have been shown to shift willingness to change behaviors and generate a sense of agency. Our approach aims to cultivate environmental science agency which involves learners 1) building science concepts and practices, 2) leveraging existing and developing new expertise, and 3) using their learning as a foundation to create change in their lives or communities.

Our team has been investigating how to design curriculum and professional learning to support teachers to draw on their knowledge of community and students to create localized units. The resources include a storyline unit with digital tools for students to engage with climate data and to model scenarios, planning tools to help teachers design a local unit, and professional learning modules that support teachers in the localization work. We designed instruments to assess the dimensions of students’ environmental science agency and are carrying out a quasi-experiment to test how localized climate change learning relates to students’ sense of agency.

Opportunities & Challenges in Climate Science Education: In our approach, we invite teachers to partner with us to integrate local and global climate change phenomena, problems, solutions, and actions. We support teachers to launch their unit in their community context by designing a locally relevant anchoring phenomenon, followed immediately by a series of investigation lessons into that local phenomenon. Teachers then transition to a globally focused ‘base unit’, which we designed, that focuses on the global underlying mechanisms of the local problems, and large-scale solutions to reverse warming. Teachers finish their units by returning to the local context to consider community-specific solutions and actions students can participate in right now. Our hope is that this local-global connection will 1) help students understand how and why their communities are experiencing a climate change-related phenomenon, 2) learn what they and their communities can do in response, and 3) build a sense of agency among youth to participate in change in their lives and communities, while also understanding the global problem we all share. To be successful in this approach, we rely on the knowledge teachers bring about their community, students, and local phenomena to design localized climate learning experiences that attend to student knowledge, interest, identity, and expertise.

Findings Related to Climate Science Education: Our early findings on the environmental science agency instruments can be found on the Our Work page of our website and in our NSF DRK12 PI meeting poster (see Products, below). Other early findings from our professional learning approach have revealed some successes and continuing challenges. Our pilot with six teacher codesigners yielded six unique localized units, which we call local pathways. The design work during the pilot was complex and time-intensive, but ultimately rewarding for the teachers and students (see teacher and student perspective interview videos). Based on the results from the pilot, we streamlined the localization design process for the quasi-experiment teachers. Most teachers participating in the quasi-experiment have reported so far that their top success during professional learning has been gaining knowledge of writing a storyline unit around a local climate phenomenon (61% of teachers). Some teachers reported successes in connecting to community and community resources (25%) and learning and growing with colleagues (14%). Challenges still persist in the complexity of the design task with some teachers reporting the design process and number of support resources are somewhat overwhelming (25%).

Methodology: The Climate Education Pathways project uses an iterative design process to develop a storyline base unit, aligned to Next Generation Science Standards, from which teachers adapt and localize. This design approach utilizes BSCS’ new instructional model called Anchored Inquiry Learning. The study uses a cohort-control quasi-experimental design to examine the impact of the localized unit and professional learning experience on dimensions of students' environmental science agency. The study also includes exploratory analyses to examine whether all students benefit from the localized unit.


Enhancing Energy Literacy through Place-based Learning: Using the School Building to Link Energy Use with Earth Systems

PI: Laura Zangori | Co-PI: Laura Cole
STEM Disciplines: Engineering (green building architecture), science
Grade Levels: 6-8
Target Audience: Students

Project Description: Our project seeks to help students understand the connections between human energy consumption within the built environment and global carbon emissions. In the U.S., buildings contribute approximately 40% of the total carbon emissions released into the atmosphere globally. Despite the sizable environmental impact of buildings, learning about how energy is harnessed and used within the built environment is rarely available in science lessons. Our project is within this space to:

  1. Design an middle school unit called Build it Green! (BIG!). BIG! is an engineering unit that forefronts energy literacy. It consists of both classroom experiences and digital interactive learning tools and visualizations for students to investigate energy systems in the built environment, figure out how and why human-made structures use energy, and consider how to design buildings with reduced energy needs. The interactive learning tools and visualizations within the unit allow students to iterate engineering building design choices and consider how those choices impact energy flow and use.
  2. Recruit and partner with rural middle school teachers within Missouri to implement BIG! In Missouri, where 63% of school districts are identified as rural, our focus is to recruit and support rural teachers in localizing the unit for use in their classrooms. And,
  3. Engage in exploratory research to investigate how BIG! improves middle school students’ (a) understanding of energy flow with an emphasis on systems knowledge and (b) investigate energy use in buildings in their communities.

Opportunities & Challenges in Climate Science Education: Our project is leveraging how energy is resourced within rural communities and school districts. Rural communities carry the brunt of the outcomes of U.S. citizens’ energy decisions, such as oil and gas drilling, that result in environmental effects that affect the health and wellness of the individuals that live and work in these communities. At the same time, rural districts may also be the location of wind and solar farms with the unique potential of providing access to real-world examples of both renewable and non-renewable energy resources. Awareness of this spectrum of more and less clean energy sources is important for students to become future advocates for how their communities are used to supply and harvest energy. Our curriculum unit is embedding community ethnography tools for students to use to investigate energy resources and their use within their local communities. We hope to encourage students to use thoughtful solutions in their building designs that are ”socially responsible and environmentally sustainable” (Gunkel & Tolbert, 2018, p. 939) for their communities.

Addressing DEIJ Through Climate Science Education: Rural districts are underserved populations for STEM interventions. We have placed this work within rural contexts to support students in investigating how their communities use (and are used for) energy resources, considering how energy resources and demand within the built environment could be reduced, and what impacts this reduction would have on climate change.

Products: BIG! builds from a prior NSF grant (DRL-2009127) exploring how students build knowledge of energy use, consumption, and flow through using their school building. Visit our current website to view this baseline work.

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Scaffolding Middle and High School Students’ Scientific Evaluations of Sources and Alternative Claims in Earth and Environmental Sciences (Collaborative Research)

PIs: Janelle Bailey, Sanlyn Buxner, Donna Governor, Doug Lombardi, Carla McAuliffe, Gale Sinatra
STEM Disciplines: Science, social studies, and English/language arts
Grade Levels: Middle, high, undergraduate
Target Audience: Middle and high school students and teachers; Introductory undergraduate students and instructors

Project Description: Contemporary scientific and social issues, such as the climate crisis, often necessitate reasoned and scientific evaluations to determine appropriate responses. Although reasoned and scientific evaluations may be challenging for students, well-designed instructional materials may facilitate the teaching and learning about the climate crisis. Students learning about these socioscientific issues encounter both scientific sources that represent current consensus and understanding as well as everyday information sources that may not be consistent with current science. Our project addresses tools to support students in reading and evaluating a variety of sources to compare various claims addressing the climate crisis and related socioscientific issues (e.g., availability of freshwater resources, impacts of fossil fuel extraction, and past paleoclimatic changes). It draws on literacy concepts from science education, social studies, and English/language arts to develop and implement scaffolding tools that can support students' understanding of the links among data, evidence, and claims while considering the trustworthiness of sources and plausibility of competing claims. Our collaborative team, which includes researchers and teachers across the country, is designing and testing these instructional scaffolds to help middle and high school science and social studies students deepen their evaluation skills as they make reasoned evaluations as expected of citizens in a functional democratic society.

Opportunities & Challenges in Climate Science Education: It might be as simple as one, two, three. One, the climate crisis is upon us; two, this crisis is impacting Earth’s entire environment; and three, humans—who are inexorably intertwined in Earth’s complex environmental system—are the culpable actors causing the climate crisis. With more than 99% of peer-reviewed climate science research articles serving as undeniable evidence in support of these assertions, the climate crisis has moved from what was once hypothetical speculation to what is now a factual claim and impending existential threat. Current climate change is characterized by causal factors that include massive deforestation and ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions from industrialization, constituting a suite of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts occurring around the globe. Solving the climate crisis, however, is not a simple matter. Climate science has a long and complex history, with decades of research investigating the link between human activities and current climate change. Through systematic methodologies and analyses, the climate science community has carefully characterized and forecasted this crisis. Local and regional planners and policymakers now face the task of adapting to mass migrations, disease outbreaks, collapsing ecosystems, and social and economic injustice caused by the climate crisis. Educational researchers and practitioners must join climate scientists, local and regional planners, and policymakers—more fully—in the process of positioning humans to successfully mitigate and adapt to this existential threat. Our community’s efforts have so far been scattered and sparse and the path is not easy. Educational researchers and practitioners will need to seek multidisciplinary collaborations that require us to be open to a variety of worldviews, theoretical frameworks, and methodologies to facilitate innovation and collaboration. With this charge, our collaborative project team anticipates that the development of innovative instructional scaffolds will support students' reasoning and deepen their understanding and agency to address the climate crisis and related socioscientific phenomena.

Addressing DEIJ Through Climate Science Education: Purveyors of disinformation have honed their craft by denying scientific evidence and claims about the severity of the climate crisis. Now, disinformation peddlers use their techniques in science denial to shower us with truth denial aimed at eroding our democratic principles, including strengthening systematic injustice to those who have been historically oppressed. Our project aims to promote tools, strategies, and knowledge that will help all come to a greater scientific understanding that promotes a healthy society and collaborative civic involvement may require being more critical and reflective about sources of information and explanatory claims. Evaluating non-scientific sources of information and alternative claims, alongside those that are scientifically valid, may seem counterintuitive, but those committed to developing a citizenry that is STEM literate and engaged in productive and collaborative civic involvement for a thriving and just society must be open to the notion that discussing and critically evaluating a variety of information sources and explanations may lead to greater awareness and understanding of science.

Findings Related to Climate Science Education: This collaborative project is the third phases of NSF-funded research that has developed a large suite of instructional scaffolds related to the climate crisis. In the first and second phases, we have conducted analyses of data collected in classroom settings during the project, with a series of quantitative repeated measures analyses and structural equation models revealing facilitation of students’ deeper evaluations between lines of scientific evidence and explanations, plausibility shifts toward the scientific, and knowledge gains about Earth and environmental science core ideas. We have conducted qualitative studies examining the process and patterns of negotiation between students during scientific argumentation and used systemic functional linguistics within a discourse analysis framework to find that students’ engagement in the negotiation during scientific argumentation promoted productive assertions about relations between evidence and models, and negotiation toward consensus decisions. We have also produced many other published works for educational practitioners. Overall, our prior findings suggest that scientific and civic literacy involves both knowing what scientists know and knowing how scientists know what they know.

Methodology: We will be involved in more than 10 classrooms each year for evidence of student engagement in epistemic evaluations; shifts in epistemic judgments toward a more socially, civically, and scientifically valid stance; and deeper core disciplinary knowledge of civics, social, and scientific concepts related to the climate crisis and related socio-scientific issues. We will use both quantitative and qualitative data analyses to explore and understand these data. We will analyze data from classroom artifacts (e.g., scaffolded tasks) using mixed methods analyses similar to what we have used in past phases (e.g., repeated measures, structural equation modeling, content analysis, systemic functional linguistics, and social network analysis).

Product(s): The LR-MEL project website is a verdant portal for all the instructional materials and resources that we have developed. This website also acts as a hub for a large amount of professional development materials developed for webinars and teacher summer institutes. The project has also been very productive in conducting meaningful research and practitioner presentations and journal articles. These are available at our research team's website.

Additional Projects

We invite you to explore a sample of the other recently awarded and active work that focuses on climate science education in the DRK-12 portfolio.

Related Resources