4.4 Teaching Climate Change from a Climate Justice Perspective in Harlem

Tuesday, 12 January 2016: 9:15 AM
Room 353 ( New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center)
Evelyn Roman-Lazen, Frederick Douglass Academy, New York, NY; and A. Giannini

In the context of an NSF/CAREER award titled “Characterizing the Uncertainty in Projections of Climate Change in the Semi-Arid Tropics Based on the Moist Static Energy Framework”, we have developed a rigorous interdisciplinary climate change curriculum. The course has been implemented as an elective course in the science department at Frederick Douglass Academy (FDA), a public high school in Harlem. The motivation for the setting and approach was to connect local and global impacts of pollution – from increased asthma incidence in a low-income neighborhood in upper Manhattan to drought across the Sahel, the semi-arid southern edge of the Sahara desert. The majority of participants in the high school course are first-generation college-bound students from predominantly Black and Latino backgrounds. The main goal of the course is therefore to expose underrepresented youth to the complexities involving climate change and its impact on communities and ecosystems locally and globally. For the past three years, self-selected groups of 20 to 25 students have met five times a week and engaged in climate research, and in sustainable design and engineering projects cast in a social/climate justice perspective to help foster environmental stewardship. This project offers high school students the opportunity to learn science from the perspective of a scientist in a hands-on way, In targeting an underrepresented group in STEM it aims to help bridge the achievement and participation gap through unique learning and engagement opportunities.

In this interdisciplinary climate change course at FDA you will find students:

• Using computational tools to analyze climate data; • Experimenting with spectroscopes to measure electromagnetic waves and learn how the radiometer installed on the school's roof top records long and short wave radiation data to support their learning and development of research skills; • Designing and building prototypes of water filtration systems to address issues of access to clean water; • Using satellite images to study watershed degradation; • Performing experiments to help demystify and enhance the learning of science content; • Building cell phone solar chargers from scratch; • Reading scientific journals, books and periodicals; • Going on field trips as well as participating in science lectures; • Watching relevant documentaries; and • Participating in Socratic discussions about science and social justice.

Learning experiences are built around case studies that help illustrate the immediacy and complexities of the challenges facing communities and ecosystems that are being adversely impacted by climate change. Students are exposed to stories of local and global significance. Throughout the course students learn how to use various data sources to investigate climate phenomena such as: the melting of the Arctic ice caps; ocean acidification due to increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere; and the droughts in California and sub-Saharan Africa. To learn how scientists study these issues students are taught how to analyze data and interpret data using computational tools. For example the students investigated in depth the climatic change that the Sahel region of Africa is undergoing. They used data from NOAA's National Climate Data Center and images from NASA's AVHRR satellite to compare decadal differences in vegetation cover and rainfall for the region. They also used data from the USGS Landsat Satellite to measure the bathymetric depth of Lake Chad, the main source of water for 60 million people. The emphasis on the Sahel region stems from the NSF/CAREER PI's research in explaining climate change, past, present and future, in the Sahel.

The course also engages students in the collection of their own data through the use of a radiometer installed on the school's rooftop as part of this grant. They learn how to interpret short and long wave radiation data to study cloud cover and other atmospheric variables. Throughout the school year students have ample opportunities to learn how to use computational tools to manipulate data in order to engage in discrete research investigations. Basic training activities include using local precipitation time series to learn how to produce basic graphs to render the data meaningful and compare it to the data from the radiometer. To gain a more comprehensive understanding of the science behind climate processes they engage in activities that help them learn, apply and demystify the science content, whether physics, chemistry or biology, rendering it relevant. The content is taught using engaging strategies where students have the opportunity to perform experiments that serve to convey scientific principles. For example, to learn about heat exchange in systems they experiment with dry ice to experience directly phase changes and the physics and chemistry of the hydrologic cycle. They transfer this knowledge to larger Earth systems to understand how these systems work.

The course has also a sustainability engineering design component. While studying the water cycle and the effects of global warming on water supplies students are asked to identify vulnerable communities lacking adequate drinking water and sanitation. Once they pick a community of their choice, they are presented with the challenge of designing and building a portable water filtration system out of recycled materials. This is a very popular activity and students are very successful in achieving this task. As part of this unit they also have the opportunity to build cell phone solar charges from scratch, and build furniture repurposing disposed materials, among other activities. Students embrace these projects and have expressed their satisfaction in learning about how different disciplines of science and engineering come together in a socially responsible way to find viable solutions to pressing global problems.

The course, offered for the past two years, has been so successful and popular that it is now a stable part of the school elective course roster. The school is looking into using this model to design and implement other science elective courses, as well as train science teachers on how to incorporate some of these hands-on strategies of teaching into all of their science courses.

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