Blog for January: Strategies for climate change education: How can they reinforce each other?

Posted by: Brian Drayton on January 4, 2021

While political turmoil and the coronavirus pandemic have been center-stage in public attention, climate change continues to unfold, and at a quickening pace.  Not only are carbon emissions accelerating rather than declining, but the accumulation of heat energy in the earth’s atmosphere and oceans is also increasing; and global-scale feedbacks loops are no longer the stuff of predictions.  As a result, disruptions to the climate regime are affecting human and nonhuman life around the world.  More and more, we are living in a different world.  (See here for an overview of some recent findings and glimmers of hope).


This world crisis presents a major challenge for STEM education — across the curriculum and across the life-span.  The Standards such as NGSS clearly position science and other STEM disciplines as socially embedded processes — STEM is integrally part of what societies do, and STEM education is once facet of that element in our civilization.   


 About the playlist and the webinar panel for this Theme


The playlist: It is not surprising that a quick search on the STEM for All Multiplex brings up dozens of projects in which climate change is a primary or secondary topic of interest.  For this Theme of the Month, we have assembled a selection of videos that exemplify three strategies for  learning and teaching about climate change:  as part of the curriculum, as a focus of citizen science, and as a way to facilitate community conversations about climate change and its implications for everyday life. 


We encourage you to watch all 6 videos before the webinar. As you do so, ask yourself questions like these:

  • What is the core strategy presented in each?
  • What sectors of the population would be reached by this strategy?
  • What new demands would this strategy place on educators (informal, formal, or  community)? How might it link to work you are doing on climate change education?
  • What outcomes would you hope for?


Our webinar panelists: We are fortunate to have as panelists, Leigh Peake of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, in Portland, Maine; Trevor Lloyd-Evans of Manomet, in Plymouth, MA; and Gilly Puttick, of TERC in Cambridge, MA.  Each of these panelists has been engaged in climate change education from more than one angle — informal education, community education, teacher learning, curriculum development, citizen science, and ecological research. We hope to have a conversation that moves past “what my project is doing,” to think about what each kind of effort might need (or learn) from the others, what the benefits and challenges might be, and what kinds of design (for materials, for projects, for research) might be possible.



Climate change presents us with rapidly emerging STEM research (in part, alas, revealing how little we know about our planet), but there are also an expanding range of problems — technical and social — requiring innovations of all kinds to mitigate climate emissions, and adapt to the changes now under way.   Moreover, our response to climate change has to explicitly recognize that it is differentially affecting poorer people, indigenous people, and people of color. Such critical awareness is part of what it means to teach science (and the other STEM branches) as a socially embedded enterprise.


The need for widespread and continued education is particularly acute in the United States, which has historically been the largest contributor to the crisis (though it has been surpassed by China, and perhaps soon also India), and has not made a proportionate contribution to its solution. STEM education has begun to acknowledge the situation and suggest altering the “curriculum as usual” (see, for example’s description of related Next Generation standards here).  Formal and informal educators, including people in many fields (such as journalists) dedicated to improving the “public understanding of science,” are also engaged. 


At this point, with so much talent and innovation deployed, we can begin to see a next horizon for STEM education: coordination and cooperation across “modes” to maximize community impact, to support and inform a robust social consensus for constructive responses to climate change.  For this to take place, I have long felt that climate change education must adopt something like Bronfenbrenner's ecological approach.  In this model, explicit/formal and implicit/informal educative processes are complementary and interacting, and both direct relationships and more distal social connections play a key role in the formation of attitudes and inclinations to act, and even in the formation of conceptual understanding.


The settings and relationships that are the daily environment within which we form and enact our identities, and that shape or refine our explanatory frames are thus strategically important for any wide-scale, effective shift in education, daily practice and action. Thus, the integrating of all of these will require educators to take a community perspective; and this means educational change on many levels.  I would suggest that an effort to take advantage of complementary climate education strategies should consider at least the following challenges:


A. How to harness communities' self-education processes. It is important to acknowledge that a myriad of organizations and community groups is actively conducting “science education” of some kind. Many of these efforts take place outside the institutional settings usually included in the term "informal education." Community groups, formal and informal educators, professional and craft associations, public media, and municipal agencies are all uniquely poised to contribute with a sense of agency to a community-wide but community-specific engagement with climate change. This can enable the wider public to participate in what John Dewey called the “process of authority” — their concerns and aspirations are a constructive part of community cognition, negotiation of values, and action.


B. How to build educators’ capacity.  There need to be resources and learning events for educators that build their capacity to engage effectively within their own communities, and to engage in cross-sector conversations on the basis of accurate information that is locally relevant, and explicitly linked to the global system.  Pathways and partnerships between schools and community, between private and public-sectors, and between scientists and non-scientists, need to be actively investigated — and continually evaluated to improve their work.  As with all educational change, this will require innovations in administration and logistics within and between institutions.


C. How to actively design complementarity among formal and informal education. In this view, institutions whose central mission is education—formal and informal—take on a renewed importance, not as the primary sources of climate change education, but rather as unique resources for all the other educational activities occurring in the community.


D. How to support communities’ development of decision-consequential knowledge. Decades of educational research have shown that learning requires both sense-making which makes connections, sees implications, and uses knowledge to answer questions of personal importance, and engagement in practice, in settings that foster knowledge use for meaningful ends.  This can help people to evaluate information about climate change, negotiate individual and community values, and identify barriers and strategies for employing that knowledge in their own contexts.


The possibility for this kind of coordination and mutual support among STEM educators of all kinds is the underlying theme of this Theme of the Month.  We hope you’ll watch the videos, read the resources, and join in the discussion about STEM education strategies for our emerging future, either during the webinar, or in the discussion forum afterwards.



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