Headline: Finding the Piece That’s Been Missing in Climate Science Education

A guest scholar at the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York, Drew Bush is completing a doctoral dissertation in the Department of Geography and School of Environment at McGill University in Montreal. His research examines how inquiry-based teaching using a climate model developed by the Goddard Institute impacts student learning of climate change science. Last week, Drew participated in the Potsdam Summer School on “Dealing with climate change impacts.”

Drew Bush
Drew Bush

Which of the talks, tours or interactive events at the summer school were particularly interesting for you?

I came to Potsdam because I wanted to learn more about how the evidence for climate change is generated – how scientists analyse the processes in the earth system. That is very important for me because I work on teaching climate science and so being taken to a lab where a scientist is working on paleo tree ring analysis or hearing from the polar researchers on how they go about modelling the Arctic change really helps me to explain in the classroom how the scientists do their work. And that is a piece that has often been missing in teaching: to not only present the evidence but explain how that evidence is generated.

Your dissertation examines the use of a climate model in the classroom. What kind of model is that?

It’s actually based on NASA GISS Model II, used by the famous United States climate scientist James Hansen. The educational version of the model (the Educational Global Climate Model or EdGCM) has been out since 2005 and has been used at close to 200 institutions all over the globe. Students use a suite of graphical interfaces. They start by setting up a scenario, and then they run the model, post-process their data and visualise results. Although the model has been in use educationally for more than ten years, it has never been evaluated for its effectiveness. That’s what I’m working on.

Climate modelling is a pretty sophisticated task. How old are the students you work with and what prior knowledge do they usually have?

They are upper-level high school or undergraduate students. All of them have heard about climate change, from the media, their parents, teachers and friends. I‘ve had a professional Alpine skier who said she had noticed how much shorter the season is, but on the other hand, I’ve also had a few climate change sceptics. Even though the topic isn’t completely new to them, they have never had anyone so clearly articulate the evidence to them and show them how scientists generate that evidence and what the major concepts are. For example, they are usually familiar with the term “greenhouse effect” but they cannot explain it. They walk away from my course with an understanding of that. When they work with the climate model, they also see how things could change in 50 or 100 years. I had a student come to me who was working on ice cover, and he said, “We got our model runs back and in 100 years, there will be no ice!” This might not be totally accurate but he definitely walked away from the course with an understanding of the gravity of the issue.

Tell me about the summer camp on climate modelling that you have established at McGill.

The computer science programme at McGill has a summer camp titled “Be a computer scientist for a week” that offers programmes in robotics and medical computing. I convinced them to let me do a climate modelling camp called “Be a climate modeller for a week.” It’s a five-day camp for high school students. We spend a lot of time on the physical science and teach them how to use the model and get them working on their own research projects. A colleague of mine at McGill who has a background in computer science also joins us to teach our students JavaScript and HTML programming so they can design and publish their modelling results on their own Web site. One of the things we emphasise is that as a scientist you need not only the ability to do your research but also to disseminate it. On the last day, the parents come and we have a competition where the students present their Web sites with their research.

That sounds like a really great programme! So as an experienced summer camp organiser, what is your verdict on the Potsdam Summer School?

It was great! It’s so interesting to learn with and from an international group of people from so many different backgrounds. We are walking away with contacts in climate research from a variety of disciplines and with many of us located halfway around the world from each other.

Header image: istock/Jeff Chevrier

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