Examining a changing world: teaching climate science in New Zealand15/04/2014
It’s a topic some science teachers shy away from, but tackling the big issues is vital, writes MELISSA WASTNEY.
Above: The Riiser Larsen ice shelf, Antarctica. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
In a classroom at Te Papa, groups of Year 10 students laugh as they pull themselves into bright yellow padded suits, snow boots, and goggles. They’re learning about life at Scott Base, Antarctica, from Dr Nancy Bertler, who has been there 13 times.
Their teacher at Onslow College is Terry Burrell, LAL (Learning Area Leader) Science and climate science enthusiast. Terry is investigating the topic with her science class and took the opportunity to sign two groups up to the workshop day at the museum.
Why climate science?
In a recent article published on The Conversation: ‘What do young people really know about climate change?’ the authors assert that it’s one thing to say: yes, I believe in climate change, yet quite another to say: yes, I understand it and how it works. In addition, there is a lot of research which supports the idea that until a person understands the science behind climate change, they may not support political regulation or make personal decisions to help reduce greenhouse gas production.
Terry agrees, when asked to explain the importance of tackling these issues in secondary school science. “It’s a topic that teachers quite often shy away from because of the tendency for it to be all ‘doom and gloom’. But in my experience, teaching students about the science can be very enlightening and they are most certainly up to the challenge of understanding the more complex themes,” she says.
Climate change as a cross-curricular context
Terry’s Year 10 students have the opportunity to study climate science in a cross-curricular manner. Terry is collaborating with the students’ social studies teacher who will look at the wider societal impacts of climate change.
“The idea is, put simply, that if you can understand the science, then you can influence the decision makers- hence the social science connection,” she says. “With the general election coming up soon, I think it’s absolutely critical that this is one of the issues the students are able to engage with their parents about.”
Here at Onslow, we found we could cross-link our teaching quite nicely in the climate change context. In science, it involves us looking at basic chemistry: atmosphere chemistry and environmental impact and scientific models. In social science, the students are looking at why humans do the things they do. So the crossovers deal with ideas about decision making and environmental impact and politics.”
What ‘doom and gloom’ means for students
It’s important, says Terry, that students are not overwhelmed by negativity when studying the concepts.
“Nobody is motivated to action if they’re feeling pessimistic,” she says. “We need to show that the hope comes from science. It’s about having the ability to make reasoned social decisions, and the science is what informs those decisions.”
So as far as we’re concerned, here in the science department: if you’re armed with ‘thinking like a scientist’ about the evidence that you’re given, then you can make sensible decisions.”
Addressing prior knowledge
Students come from all backgrounds, and bring a broad range of views and levels of understanding to class. “This is always hugely diverse,” says Terry. “There’s often mis-knowledge – for example, getting the ozone layer confused with greenhouse layer, and so on. “A lot of what students bring to class might originate from what they’ve heard in the media or from family. There are always a few who will bring up a sceptic viewpoint, and throw that out to have it argued. This is good, of course, because it allows us to go back to the science and look at what we really do know.”
Terry says it requires discussion about the structure and particle nature of the atmosphere, and the nature of radiation. Starting with what is ‘known’ helps students to access the science of climate change. “I’ve chosen to explore this particular theme as atmosphere chemistry, and the impact of that on ecosystems, so that’s my slant for this particular topic.”
Resources and class plans
Onslow College is the first school to embrace the use of the 2013 film Thin Ice in science classes.
“In class, I like to use interactive websites with New Zealand data about the climate on them. But I also had the good chance last year to run into Peter Barrett, and to view his ‘Thin Ice’ film. That kick-started us looking at climate science, and how we could use it as a cross-curricular context here at Onslow.”
But before the students watch the film, they spend some weeks studying atmosphere chemistry. "It’s a matter of working out what we don’t know, before we get started on learning more about climate change via the film,” says Terry. “I felt the students needed some work on how modelling is used in science, and learning about terms like ‘correlation’ and ‘parts per million’, for example.
“When I first showed the film to my students, they found it very accessible. We’re now using it at the Year 10 level, and as the overarching context for a Level 3 course we run in Earth and Space Science. The teacher of that course is basically putting all of his topics within the context of the film, and the idea of the earth cycle being impacted on by humans and how that’s going to play out in the longer term.”
Thin Ice film
Last year, NZST published an article about the award-winning documentary, Thin Ice: The inside story of climate science, (a David Sington-Simon Lamb film.) It was produced collaboratively by Victoria University of Wellington, Oxford University, and DOX Productions, London, and sets out to expose the huge range of human activity and scientific endeavour going into understanding Earth’s changing climate.
Where Thin Ice differs from other climate films is in the way it showcases many scientists working in the field. The idea is that the audience is able to not only better understand the science itself, but to put a human face to climate research. Peter Barrett is an executive producer of Thin Ice and an Antarctic research fellow at Victoria University of Wellington. He believes the film makes compelling viewing for science students.
“The wide range of scientists who are working in the field make up the content of the film. So we are proud of the collaborative nature of the work,” says Peter.
“Basically, everyone needs to become a climate scientist on some level so that when we talk to each other we have a basic understanding of the subject and a better idea about how we might face our planet’s problem.”
Discussing alternative views in class
Climate science has been coming under increasing attack and students are often interested to discuss alternative theories. Thin Ice opens with a response to this. The film follows geologist Simon Lamb as he visits his climate science colleagues around the world to discuss their findings. His journey takes him around the world, including local examples such as Baring Head, near Wellington, where CO2 data has been collected over time, and Paraparaumu to investigate helium balloons released into the atmosphere for over 40 years.
Terry says this is a great way to address alternative views in class.
“Students are engaged as Simon travels around the globe, and looks at all the science in action around climate change. He looks at the depth and diversity of evidence from things like dendrochronology and ice cores, to the ocean’s pH and temperature.
“The film allows me, as a teacher, to address Nature of Science concepts, such as why scientists use ‘models’ and what the strengths and weaknesses of these are, as well as to discuss ideas like correlation, causal effects and variables.”
Because the film ends on an optimistic note, says Terry, it encourages students to action rather than despair. At the end of Thin Ice, Simon [the scientist-narrator who made the comments] sums up his journey and the film by saying the science he has found provides us with future choices.
“It’s not a hopeless situation. The film talks about how versatile and adaptable the human race is and expresses optimism for the future.”
Te Papa climate change day
Above: Terry Burrell's Onslow College science class, with Dr Nancy Bertler, at Te Papa's climate change workshop.
One climate scientist featured in the film is Dr Nancy Bertler. Along with her role as Associate Professor at the Antarctic Research Centre at Victoria University, Nancy is an ice core specialist working in Antarctica. Her presentation to Terry’s class focuses on her work as Principal Investigator on the RICE project. The students recognise her from Thin Ice as she shows them slides of a recent expedition to Antarctica.
Karyne Rogers is a geologist from GNS and currently one of the scientists-in-residence at Te Papa. With Te Papa educators and scientists from NIWA and GNS, they form a team of educators delivering this content to secondary school students.
Together, Nancy and Karyne help present the climate change workshop programme at Te Papa, aimed at students from Year 9 to 11. Part of the New Zealand Festival-affiliated SchoolFest 2014, the day at Te Papa offers secondary school students and their teachers a chance to immerse themselves in authentic climate science from the experts, from ice core research to deep-sea creatures.
Above: Antarctic gear from the Te Papa collection, waiting for student inspection.
Nancy tells the students about life on Scott Base: the ‘suburbs’ where the scientists sleep, the showers, the food. She explains the RICE operation and shows slides of the ice core samples she has studied.
The students are fascinated by the real-life Antarctic equipment laid out for them to examine. After a slide show about a typical trip to the ice, Nancy challenges groups of students to a race: which team can get in and out of the Antarctic clothing first and which can write a decent shopping list for such an expedition?
The dressing-up is performed with gusto: on go the padded yellow suits, the goggles and full gloves. The proposed gear lists are comprehensive: snow boots, soap, steriliser tablets, and GPS equipment, among other items.
Above: RICE headquarters. Photo: Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington.
RICE (Roosevelt Island Climate Evolution) is an international collaboration between New Zealand, USA, Denmark, United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Italy, China, and Sweden. The project aims to recover a 750 m deep ice core from Roosevelt Island in Antarctica. This ice core will help scientists determine the stability of the Ross Ice Shelf and West Antarctica as our climate warms by analysing the past, present, and future changes of the Ross Sea Ice Shelf, a major drainage pathway of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
The investigation, which began in 2011, aims to be completed by 2016, and the RICE core will be processed at the New Zealand Ice Core Research Facility at GNS Science, Wellington.
Karyne stresses the importance of education programmes such as this one at Te Papa. “It’s our aim to communicate the value of this science,” she says. “My role as a science educator here at Te Papa is about supporting teachers and inspiring learning. I want them to have fun, take interest, and see the value in it – it’s about encouraging them to really take part in the science that is happening around them.”
Nancy emphasises the wider implications for a scientifically-literate society. “Climate change education is so important because we all need to be aware of how we affect our environment. It’s not just about training future scientists, but also thinking about our future researchers, writers, policy makers, and teachers. Of course, everyone who votes should have an understanding of the science.”
The effects of climate change are not necessarily the same around the world, and therefore, it’s important that students study the science as it is happening locally. “We know that the impact of how our climate is changing is seen in different ways around Earth – it’s not an equal effect everywhere. So we need to communicate climate science as it relates specifically to New Zealand.”
Above: Hamish Weir, trying on some Antarctic clothing.
At the end of Nancy’s workshop, the students can’t resist another dress up session with the polar gear.
Hamish Weir, from behind his goggles, says he finds studying climate science to be disheartening at times. “Although it can be hard, there are some heartening things about studying climate change, too,” he says. “I’m definitely interested in studying it further.”
Madison McVie says the social impact of the science is what she is most interested in. “I’m finding this unit really interesting –especially learning about the wide range of different impacts that climate change has on the world and everything that lives in it.”
And Peter Barrett puts it succinctly: “Basically, everyone needs to become a climate scientist on some level so that when we talk to each other we have a basic understanding of the subject and a better idea about how we might face our planet’s problem.”
Young people will lead the way
Climate scientist Dr James Renwick is Associate Professor at the School of Geography, Environment, and Earth Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington. He has just returned from an international climate change conference in Hobart; one focus of which was sea ice. “It’s a very interesting and important area, understanding what’s going on with sea ice as both a symptom of out changing climate,” he says. “Right now, I feel at least up with the play on what questions people are asking. I may not have the corresponding answers, though,” he says.
James’ professional interest focuses on the large-scale circulation of the atmosphere: how the climate system varies, its effect on our weather, and the way in which energy is transported around the globe. He’s also interested in human-induced climate change.
It’s possible, says James, that perceived complexities of climate science, and its multi-disciplinary nature, could discourage teachers to tackle the concepts in class. “Like many subjects, once you dive in, they become more layered and complex,” he says. “But there are some simple ideas, I think, about climate change that can be easily conveyed to students from any level within our education system.”
It could be as simple as discussing the basic concepts of the earth’s temperature, its surface energy balance, and how greenhouse gases are affecting the atmosphere. “Limiting future climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, and young people just ‘get’ this stuff,” he says.
“Really, they see it as their problem. The climate system hasn’t changed all that much yet. But if the projections for the future are even fairly close to accurate, in 50 years’ time, the climate system will be pretty different.” He points to organisations such as Generation Zero and 350.org who work to communicate these concepts and take action.
Secondary school students are especially receptive to ‘big ideas’ and future-oriented learning. “It’s really important to put this science across to school students because in my opinion at least, this is the biggest issue in our world today. Of course, there are lots of other things going on: political unrest, issues around inequality and disease, and more, but climate change is only going to make all of those things worse. Everything is interconnected.”
Ideas for teachers:
James says there are various educational resources published by organisations such as The Royal Society of New Zealand, The British Royal Society, CSIRO in Australia, and The National Academy of Sciences in the USA, around the basic ideas of climate change.
IPCC Working Group ‘headlines’ document – available here: http://climatechange2013.org/
The idea of these, and similarly important climate documents, being easily accessible is catching on: a series of 18 tweets written by leading climate scientist Piers Forster: summarised the IPCC ‘headlines’ in September, 2013.
Other suggested resource links from Dr James Renwick for secondary school science teachers: