J12.2 Overcoming climate skepticism in the schools: using games to communicate climate change mitigation options

Tuesday, 25 January 2011: 1:45 PM
618-620 (Washington State Convention Center)
Andrea M. Feldpausch-Parker, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX; and T. R. Peterson, D. E. Endres, and M. O'Byrne

Anthropogenic climate change is considered by scientists to be one of today's most pressing issues. This discovery lead to the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which reported in 2007 that industrial-age human activities have resulted in a marked increase in global atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from pre-industrial levels (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007). Even with overwhelming agreement by climate scientists on human contributions to this phenomenon, it remains a contentious issue in the public domain, especially when it comes to climate policy (McCright and Dunlap 2003; 2010). Studies over the last decade indicate that public perceptions of climate change are often dependent on perceptions of personal and societal risks, environmental attitudes and access to accurate knowledge of climate science and policy strategies (Lorenzoni and Pidgeon 2006). The latter is especially problematic considering the complexity of the climate science (Lorenzoni and Pidgeon 2006; Ungar 2000), not to mention the amount of misinformation circulating in public discourse (Antilla 2005; McCright and Dunlap 2003).

Because climate science is directly related to policy debates, scientists are often drawn into public controversies over climate (Meyer et al. 2010). When faced with skeptical and misinformed audiences, scientists working in the area of climate change are pressed to communicate and justify their work. The combination of being hoisted into political controversy and the level of public skepticism toward climate science may lead climate scientists to disengage from a public that seems hopelessly illiterate. As we will show in this essay, however, one practical way to communicate climate science to the public is by incorporating it into science education programs at the K-12 level. Using the science education campaign developed for the Southwest Regional Partnership on Carbon Sequestration (SWP) as a case study, this essay demonstrates how K-12 science education in the U.S., specifically through educational games, can be a useful strategy for communicating climate science.

By incorporating games into science education, youth can practice problem solving skills within a real world context in an interactive learning environment (Jacobson et al. 2006; Pange 2003). Framing an educational game in a narrative contributes to situated cognition through activities and lessons that incorporate relevant (real-life) contexts (van Eck 2006; Brown et al. 1989). Further, as a part of scientific education, games can teach scientific literacy, something that is useful beyond climate science as more and more scientific issues are entering the realm of public policy. Educational games are especially useful for teaching about broaching controversial scientific issues such as climate change. Because students are playing a game, the information is less threatening than if it were presented in lecture format; and students enjoy learning because games are fun. Games also reach youth, a commonly neglected audience that may be less ideologically committed to misinformation regarding climate change than adults. The SWP developed an internet game geared toward teaching youth about geologic carbon capture and storage (CCS). The storyline of the game focuses on a main character, Carbon Bond (a.k.a. OOC), who is on a mission to save the planet by capturing as many rogue CO2 molecules as possible and putting them safely behind bars (or down an injection well into an underground formation). Bond's adventures take him from the smokestacks of a power plant, to the stormy coasts of the Gulf of Mexico (impacted by increased storm intensity related to climate change), and finally to a CO2 storage facility in the Southern Rockies where the Gang (anthropogenic GHGs) is put away…for life. The goals of this jeopardy-style game are to teach youth about the technology behind CCS, and also about climate change and the difficulties faced by attempting to manage and mitigate for global problems.

To gain input into the content and usefulness of Carbon Bond in classrooms, a focus group was conducted with grade school science teachers from Southeastern New Mexico. Participants viewed the narrated story and played the game as a group. A group discussion followed, focusing on the use of games to start or continue youth dialog about climate change, CCS, benefits and drawbacks to Carbon Bond, and ideas for future educational materials.

In discussions about teacher opportunities and desires to address concerns such as climate change and use of issue-based materials in the classroom, skepticism over the causes of climate change was considered the biggest problem to overcome for implementing issue-based education. Teachers reported that climate change remained contentious in their communities. Teachers felt that by having the materials created and made available by reputable sources with an understanding of curriculum standards, school administrators would be more willing to pursue this type of learning experience. The teachers also found the game as a fun and useful tool to motivate youth to think about climate change and climate change mitigation strategies. They saw additional benefits to the game as it connected to other topics such as the carbon cycle. Overall teachers found The Adventures of Carbon Bond a valuable tool for educating youth about climate change and CCS. As an internet game, it has the capacity to reach multiple users, outlining the basic actions involved in capturing, transporting and storing anthropogenic CO2. It is one of few educational activities that enable youth to explore approaches to climate change mitigation.

Though The Adventures of Carbon Bond is focused on a specific climate change mitigation strategy, it illustrates the significant potential contribution of youth-oriented games on climate science and similarly controversial scientific topics.

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