Using Extreme Weather Events, Local Climate Change Research and Data Analysis, and Community Service Learning as Authentic Engagement Activities to Foster Action and Behavior Change

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Monday, 3 February 2014
Hall C3 (The Georgia World Congress Center )
Russanne Low, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE; and C. Mandryk, D. C. Gosselin, and C. Haney

Climate change engagement requires individuals to understand an abstract and complex topic and realize the profound concrete implications of climate change for their families and local community. In recent years federal agencies have spent millions of dollars on climate change education to prepare our nation for a warming future. The majority of these education efforts are based on a knowledge deficit model. In this view “educate” means “provide information”. However cognitive and behavioral research demonstrate that information alone is not enough; knowledge does not necessarily lead to action. As educators, we are speaking to deaf ears if we rely on passive and abstract information transfer and neglect more persuasive and affective approaches to learning and communication.

We must reconsider our strategies for engagement. When a life-threatening challenge is presented abstractly, as something that will happen to humans and ecosystems distant in time or space, individuals are cognitively wired to discount its importance and focus their attention on more immediate, tangible concerns. Authentic local research experiences that engage both the cognitive and affective information processing systems help individuals understand climate change in a concrete and personally experienced manner, and we hypothesize that this approach is more likely to promote adoption of behaviors necessary to respond to climate change effectively as a nation.

To this end, our team has developed three on-line courses offered within University of Nebraska's Masters of Applied Science program. These courses provide an experimental environment to evaluate the effectiveness of multiple personalized, localized learning experiences within a graduate level climate change science curriculum. NRES 830 Climate Research Applications engages learners in exploration of near-time community impacts of climate change through the use of archival and satellite data. NRES 832 Human Dimensions of Climate Change culminates in a participant-led community engagement project directed at fostering community understanding and climate-friendly consumer decisions. NRES 898 Earth and Geospatial Technology Applications explores the impacts of climate change on the landscape, including those resulting from an increasing frequency of extreme weather events.

The courses are specifically designed to improve middle to high school (grades 6-12) teachers' content knowledge of climate processes and climate change science in the context of their own community. All three courses provide data-rich, investigative science experiences in a distributed digital environment and support teachers in the creation of lessons and units that promote both inquiry science and community connections and engagement. For example, participants in 2011-2012 created their own community climate chronicle using archival and ethnographic sources, then compared the outcome of their analyses to satellite data. Participants from the Midwest, Northeast, West and Mid Atlantic states examined the impacts of changes in local temperature and/or precipitation patterns on extreme weather events, crop yields, power usage, water usage, and local phenology. In Spring 2012, participants in the NRES898 course monitored the unfolding crisis of Superstorm Sandy using geospatial tools, followed the real-time emergency response in NY and NJ, and were asked to consider the readiness of the world to respond to the projected increase in extreme weather events accompanying climate change. Questions concerning potential consequences and economic, social, political, health, environmental, and infrastructure impacts were addressed. As course participants connect the dots from their newly acquired theoretical science knowledge to concrete examples of change taking place locally and regionally, they are prepared and empowered to promote action at the local level to address the challenges of climate change.

A longitudinal evaluation of course outcomes tracks the effectiveness of these courses in achieving both scientific content mastery and personal engagement with climate change issues in our participants. Changes in spatial mental representations and climate change knowledge content are measured separately via pre/post surveys and co-evaluated to discern relationships between spatial cognitive processes and effective acquisition of climate change science concepts in virtual learning environments. In addition, we measure the alignment of participant mental models of nature of science and climate system dynamics to expert scientific models using both concept maps and qualitative textual analysis using MAXQDA tools and UCINET social network analysis programs. Content mastery assignments submitted by participants provide another rich source of data in this mixed methods assessment. Results from the ongoing evaluation project are presented. We also showcase some of the community-based initiatives emerging from these courses: actions that seed the behavioral changes we need to live sustainably in our communities and on our planet.