Talking climate change to middle-schoolers

JUN 26, 2017    by TONI KLEMM

7th-graders learning about climate change. Photo: Toni Klemm

We’ve all heard the phrase that science should be explained on the level of sixth- to eighth-graders to be understandable for a general audience, right? But who has ever tried to explain science to actual sixth- to eighth-graders? I can now proudly say I have, and I’ve lived to tell the story.

7th-graders learning about climate change. Photo: Toni Klemm

A few weeks ago I was invited to a middle school in Norman, Oklahoma, where I live, to talk about climate change. Laura Vaughn, the school’s science teacher, and her social studies colleague had organized a two-hour guided inquiry lecture for their 280 seventh-graders, investigating with little guidance from teachers how climate change affects our lives and what we can do about it. Eleven other researchers and city employees and I each manned a table in the school’s gym where we set up demonstrations to help make climate science concrete for the student. For example, we showed how CO2 increases air temperature and causes ocean acidification, what tree rings can tell us about the earth’s past climate, and how clogged up storm water runoffs can increase flood risk. I wanted to explain how climate extremes like drought, flood, or heat impact our agriculture, what role climate change plays in all this, and what farmers can do to maintain a good harvest. Or, I should say, that was the plan.

Explaining my work to peers is often hard enough. But talking about it to non-scientists — policy-makers, managers, or the general public — always seems even more challenging to me. To help me become a better science communicator, I recently started a course with Toastmasters International, a non-profit that teaches public speaking and leadership skills. (I blog about my experiences with Toastmasters on my personal blog.) In every meeting, I throw myself into situations that improve my ability to speak clearly and coherently, to spot unnecessary jargon and then avoid it, whether it is a prepared speech or a spontaneous answer during a round of questions. I also participate in discussions with students, talk to people outside my discipline, and of course present my own research to people outside my field. But unlike these situations, Toastmasters feels like a safe environment to make mistakes. We evaluate each other, comment on grammar, use of filler words, applaud what went well and give suggestions for what didn’t. No one is perfect, and everyone is there to improve.

At a geography conference in Boston, I recently learned about the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. The ten-week long programs, which run every summer at universities and colleges across the U.S., fund travel and housing for participants. The program doesn’t focus on collaborative research or communication per se but is meant to give undergraduate students a general taste of research and let them explore various disciplines and possible careers in science. That said, some schools do run programs in which interdisciplinary work and communication are very much part of the deal. The REU program at the University of Central Florida, for example, sends student from different fields in groups to coastal communities in Belize to work with locals on environmental problems, like disaster management and ocean waste. Not only do students have to speak Spanish to participate. These supervised projects also train students to be open about their work and to avoid jargon when communicating with the public. Clark University in Massachusetts takes a similar approach with their REU program, called HERO (Human-Environment Regional Observatory). Undergraduates study the impact of a tree planting program on wildlife, noise pollution, and air quality through tree surveys and interviews with residents. They then present their findings to the public, improving their own knowledge about human-environmental interaction and qualitative analysis as well as their communication skills. At the University of Oklahoma (including the South Central Climate Science Center), REU students from any discipline can study weather and climate topics, like tornados, severe weather, or societal impacts of weather and climate extremes.

Back to our middle school event. With 280 rambunctious students roaming around my station for two hours and throwing questions at me, my brain was constantly on the ropes trying to answer questions like “What part of climate change do you work with?” or “What are some solutions to prevent climate change or even reverse it?” Often I just didn’t know what to say, though not because I didn’t know the answer. I didn’t know how to simplify it enough. To reassure myself I often ended with “Does that make sense?”, upon which one student admitted “Well, not really…” throwing the ball back at me for a second attempt.

Convoluted sentences with more than 15 words seemed to confuse students, and most jargon whatsoever threw them off immediately. To buy myself time I often kicked the question back to them: “What do you think we can do to reduce climate change?” which finally got the ball rolling! They would suggest reducing pollution, I would ask them how we could do that, and together we went from talking about air quality and eating more veggies to biking to school instead of being driven by their parents. Instead of preaching at the students about things they were unfamiliar with, I used their knowledge to talk with them about solutions they could easily understand and contribute to. It was mentally exhausting, but what they eventually wrote down were not my answers but theirs. Laura Vaughn, the science teacher, later emailed me to say that some of her students told her my station was their favorite.

Two weeks later I got invited again for presentations by the students. Each seventh grade science student designed a poster or powerpoint presentation of their favorite topic, and their social studies colleagues evaluated them. Many used the websites and online databases I had shared with their teacher, and some chose agriculture as their topic. One girl told me irrigation can be both be a blessing for farmers in times of drought but also a curse because it depletes the aquifer if farmers irrigate too much. I was delighted about how much they learned, and I was surprised how much I had learned, too.

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