Weather and Climate Change Conceptions of Middle-school Students

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Monday, 3 February 2014: 1:45 PM
Room C109 (The Georgia World Congress Center )
Tina Cartwright, Marshall University, Huntington, WV; and J. S. Malmberg and J. Atwood

1. The Challenge

One of the most important challenges facing the citizens of the 21st century will undoubtedly be climate change. Yet, understanding about climate change remains problematic for students and teachers, particularly in the United States. Understanding the small fluctuations associated with long term changes in temperature and precipitation is a daunting task for the general public let alone for the middle-aged adolescent. Unfortunately, students may only receive instruction on this general environmental science topic in middle-school and in a general science course during their freshman year of high school. This study compare changes to middle-school student's understanding of weather and climate change after participating in From Learning to Research, a NSF-funded subset of The GLOBE Program's Student Climate Research Campaign.

When compared to other countries, especially industrialized countries, Americans tend to fall short in terms of their grasp on the seriousness of accelerated climate change. About 10 percent fewer Americans rated global warming as a “very serious” or ”somewhat serious” in world surveys from 2005-2008 than participants in the total sample of all countries surveyed, as well as the subsample of industrialized countries (Nagel, 2011). As to whether or not people can identify global warming as a phenomenon greatly enhanced by human activity, Americans seem to fall short in this as well. Surveys identified that fewer Americans made this identification than Germany, Canada, Sweden, Argentina, Japan, and Italy, but similar to the U.K. (Weber & Stern, 2011).

The public opinion in the United States of some of the key aspects of climate change has fluctuated dramatically between 1996 and 2010. A recent study by Weber and Stern revealed that agreement with some of the central ideas of global warming (which include the idea that global warming is beginning or has begun, that it is due to more human activities than natural causes, and will pose a threat to humans) has fluctuated considerable over this time period (2011). While the general public's agreement has varied, there has also been a steady increase in acceptance of these ideas among climate scientists over this same period of time (Weber & Stern, 2011). To further support this idea, a Pew Research Center poll in 2009 found that 84% of scientists said that the earth was getting warmer because of burning of fossil fuels, but only 49% of nonscientists in the United States sample agreed with this view. Undoubtedly, the complexity of the issues surrounding weather, climate and climate change may be central to this start disagreement between scientists and nonscientists. We need to better understand what students know during this important age when they receive the most instruction on environmental issues. This research presentation will provide preliminary data that will launch a deeper research study to further investigate student's understanding in weather, climate and also climate change.

2. Methodology & Findings

Researchers compared middle school students' (n=731) performance on a pre-test at the beginning of the school year with questions relating to climate/weather and the greenhouse effect with that of a post-test given at the end of the school year (n=481) using a chi-square goodness of fit test. Their science teacher facilitated their involvement over the course of the year in the From Learning to Research project, a subset of The GLOBE Program's Student Climate Research Campaign. This program requires that the classroom participates in the gathering and examining of data to develop students understanding about climate change through authentic research experiences. Teachers participated in a week long summer workshop in the summer of 2012 and then returned to their classrooms where students took the pre test at the beginning of the academic year and the post test (with identical questions) at the end of the academic year in 2013. The questionnaire was completed during regular school time with the students' usual science teacher. Boon (2009) developed the questionnaire after two pilot questionnaires were written and tested on a class of year 8 students in the UK. Boon examined the student responses and selected the most suitable questions from the two trial surveys for the final survey. This study repeated Boon's questions and added additional questions related to weather and climate, which were not included in Boon's study.

Students were much more confident in their understanding of the sources of greenhouse gases. Nearly, 75% on the post test (vs. 55% on the pre test) knew that greenhouse gases originate from a combination of human and natural sources. Improvement was not seen in understanding about the greenhouse effect: 68% of students on post test (46% on pre test) incorrectly responded that the greenhouse effect harms our earth. Improvements in understanding were evident in questions regarding the gases associated with the greenhouse effect: 79% (67% on pre test) identified carbon dioxide as the primary greenhouse gas.

By in large, students performed better on the outcomes of a warmer climate at the end of the year than at the beginning. Nearly 48% knew that the sea level would rise with a warmer climate (versus 28% on the pre test). More students (78%) knew the most on the post test while only 61% knew this on the pre test.

Another outcome question that was asked of all students was the following: How might these actions impact the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere? The student groups answered significantly differently to the following 2 actions: burning oil or coal (73% on post test vs. 55% on pre test) and using alternative energies (74% on post test vs. 53% on pre test). Interestingly, the greatest source of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (burning fossil fuels) was only accurately identified by just 46% of 9th grade Appalachian students from an important coal source region of the country. Educators need to be made aware of the level of understanding of students, particularly as compared to similarly aged international students.