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Student Understanding of Climate Change: Undergraduate Survey Knowledge Scores and Environmental Issue Confusion

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Monday, 7 January 2013: 2:15 PM
Student Understanding of Climate Change: Undergraduate Survey Knowledge Scores and Environmental Issue Confusion
Room 19A (Austin Convention Center)
Joanna K. Huxster, Univ. of Delaware, Newark, Delaware; and X. Uribe-Zarain
Manuscript (211.5 kB)

Abstract

The scientific community has reached a consensus about the occurrence of global climate change and its anthropogenic causes. The is an issue that will require the public support and political leadership in order to enact mitigation strategies. University students, as young, educated members of the American public, are both current voters and highly invested in our future. This research focuses on undergraduate students at two universities in order to examine their understanding of climate change science. Surveys (n=853, completed=465) were conducted to determine the students' level of climate change knowledge and how students' mental models compare to the scientific model. A Knowledge Score was generated for each student based on his or her responses. It was found that, overall, students continue to hold misconceptions about the causes of climate change and frequently confuse climate change with other environmental issues, most notably, ozone depletion. This research shows that students in science majors and environmental groups are more likely to have mental models of climate change that closely match the scientific model, and that environmental group membership is a greater determinant of climate change knowledge than enrollment in a science major.

Design and Results

A survey created based on the results of a pilot study was administered to a sample of junior and senior students at two public universities on the East Coast. A total of 853 students took the survey, and 465 students from the two universities completed the entire survey. For this analysis, a "Knowledge Score" was generated for the students completing the entire survey based on their agreement and disagreement with both correct and incorrect knowledge statements(Scale=0-35). The mean Knowledge Scores of science and non-science students were compared using a t-test, as were the mean knowledge scores of environmental group members and students not belonging to an environmental group. One-Way Analysis of Variance was used to compare mean Knowledge Scores between the four Core Groups (1. Science major and Environmental group 2. Non-Science major and Environmental group 3. Science major and Non-environmental group 4. Non-science major and Non-environmental group). In addition to the calculation and analysis of the Knowledge Scores, the descriptive statistics of individual statements of interest on the survey were examined in order to gain a better illustrate the occurrence of environmental issue confusion in student understanding of climate change.

               Descriptive statistics were performed to compare different groups of students based on their science education and their environmental group membership. In an independent samples t-test, the mean Knowledge Score of the science majors was found to be significantly higher (m=19.60, sd=5.98) than the mean Knowledge Score of the non-science majors (m=17.43, sd=5.19), (t(448)=3.46, p<.05). The mean Knowledge Score of environmental group students was significantly higher (m=20.11, sd=5.04) than the mean Knowledge Score of the non-environmental group students (m=17.36, sd=5.35), (t(456)=4.44, p<.05).  The Core Groups and their corresponding mean scores are as follows: 1. Science major and Environmental group (m=21.38), 2. Non-Science major and Environmental group (m=19.5), 3. Science major and Non-environmental group (m=18.36), 4. Non-science major and Non-environmental group (m=17.13). A significant difference was found between the groups F(3, 447) = 9.60, p<.05) and post hoc analysis shows that environmental group membership is a greater indicator of a high Knowledge Score than enrolment in a science major.

               Specific statements from the survey were of interest in illustrating student understanding of climate change. The response percentages for two survey statements matching the scientific model of climate change can be seen in Table 1:

Table 1: University Student Responses to Survey Statements Matching the Scientific Model of Climate Change

Item

Agree

Neither

Disagree

N

2.10 Scientists are highly certain that humans are definitely the cause of current, rapid climate change

53.2%

29.0%

17.8%

682

2.23 Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which traps heat and causes climate change

77.0%

19.6%

3.3%

566

Despite the high number of responses showing understanding of the role of fossil fuels in climate change, statements dealing with the confusion of climate change with ozone depletion show that students do not fully separate climate change from other environmental issues, as can be seen in Table 2:

Table 2: University Student Responses to Survey Statements Confusing Climate Change with Ozone Depletion

Item

Agree

Neither

Disagree

N

2.11 Climate change is happening because we are depleting the ozone layer, and that lets in more heat from the sun.

43.0%

26.9%

30.1%

672

2.16 Greenhouse gases make the hole in the ozone layer worse

54.8%

23.2%

21.9%

633

2.36 I can help prevent climate change by not buying or using aerosol cans

50.1%

28.7%

21.1%

505

The percentages of agreement with these statements indicate that there is a great deal of confusion in students' understanding of climate change and ozone depletion. For example, more than half of the respondents agreed that greenhouse gases contribute to the hole in the ozone layer, and half of the respondents mistakenly believe that limiting their use of aerosol cans will help to prevent climate change.

Conclusions

               At the two universities represented in this study, the cultural models of students show some basic understanding of the scientific processes of climate change, but students also show a great deal of confusion between climate change and the ozone depletion. In terms of the level of knowledge of the general student body at these two universities, the mean Knowledge Score falls at 17.84, just slightly over 50% on the scale of 0-35. Interestingly, environmental group membership is a greater indicator of climate change knowledge (as defined by the Knowledge Score) than enrollment in a science major. Students in both a science related major and an environmental group have the highest mean knowledge scores. These findings indicate that members of the American public in higher education, voters and future leaders for the country, are not receiving or retaining adequate information to make informed decisions about climate change. This indicates a need for more effective communication and political action on this issue.