Teaching Controversial Topics

Thursday 11:30am-1:30pm UMC Aspen Rooms
Poster Session

Session Chairs

Michelle Selvans, University of California-Berkeley
Carrie Nelms, University of Arkansas Main Campus
Connecting Controversy and Complexity
Don Haas, Paleontological Research Institution
Eric Pyle, James Madison University
Robert Ross, Cornell University-Endowed Colleges

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The authors share interest and experience in programming for both teaching about complex adaptive systems (CASs) and about controversial issues. Controversial issues are a subset of complex issues, as these issues always (we suggest): are evolving; involve the interplay of different disciplines; are composed of multiple nested subsystems (indicating an importance for understandings of scale); are better understood from perspectives that include contextualization in space and time (perspectives that include the history of the system); are partially defined by feedback; and; are not necessarily greater than, but qualitatively different from the sum of their parts; There are many more shared characteristics than space allows. In this program example, we will share approaches and resources from our experience in climate and energy education, especially as related to hydrofracking and the Critical Zone Observatory Network. Shared resources will include rules of thumb for teaching about controversial issues, and an adaptation of Craven's "Credibility Spectrum," for evaluating the reliability of media as related to any controversial issue. The session will draw from experiences in a range of settings that includes middle school through college in the science classroom, and teacher professional development and public programming. While attention will be given to both formal and informal education, special attention will be given to tying the teaching of complex and controversial issues to the NGSS and its focus on "three-dimensional science".
Geoscience module for meteorology curricula
Thom Davis, Bentley University
Lisa Doner, Plymouth State University
Mary Ann McGarry, Plymouth State University
Mark Turski, Plymouth State University

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Recent studies indicate that meteorologists lag Earth system scientists by 9-18% in accepting anthropogenic forcing of climate change (Maibach et al. 2014). This gap is 30% for broadcast meteorologists (Wilson 2012). To better understand this issue for climate change communication, we investigate climate literacy of meteorology professionals and students (NSF award DRL-1222752). Survey responses from 139 students, representing 10 (14%) of U.S. meteorology degree granting programs, indicate that student knowledge on climate topics is <75%. They have little understanding of the ability for models to generate climate change predictions (68%) and of climate models in general (66.7%). Even greater gaps occur with Earth surface aspects of climate, like spatial-temporal scales (49-54%); the carbon cycle, including the role of CO2 in ocean acidification (55%); and how volcanic and industrial aerosols affect climate (54%). The 2010 American Meteorological Society curriculum recommendations to improve climate training appear to be inadequate, a finding supported by recent surveys (Stenhouse et al., 2014). Specialized training in geological aspects of climate could improve the climate literacy, and perhaps climate science communication to the public, by meteorologists. Through the Earth Educator's Rendezvous, we hope to develop a module on geologic processes and feedbacks for introductory or advanced meteorology classes to address their climate literacy needs. Maibach, E., T. Myers, and A. Leiserowitz (2014), Climate scientists need to set the record straight: There is a scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is happening, Earth's Future, 2, doi:10.1002/2013EF000226. Stenhouse, N., Maibach, E., Cobb, S., Ban, R., Bleistein, A., Croft, P., Bierly, E., Seitter, K., Rasmussen, G. and Leiserowitz, A. 2014: Meteorologists' Views About Global Warming: A Survey of American Meteorological Society Professional Members. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 95, 1029–1040. Wilson, K.M. 2012: Ideology trumps meteorology: Why many television weathercasters remain unconvinced of human-caused global warming. Electronic News, 6(4), 208-228.
Museums & Mermaids: Bringing Climate Literacy to the Party
Debra Tillinger, American Museum of Natural History

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If science is for everyone, then it needs to be taught in environments that are welcoming to people who may not feel at home in a traditional classroom. A team of scientists and educators at the American Museum of Natural History have developed a new course, Our Earth's Future, which prepares participants to contribute intelligently and fluently to informal "cocktail party" conversations about climate and climate change. The course, taught after hours at the museum, culminates in an actual cocktail party in one of the museum's halls where participants can practice their skills. Participants' knowledge of climate change and attitudes towards climate change were quantitatively and qualitatively assessed before and after the four five-week course sessions. Climate literacy can also be included in existing events that are not obviously science-focused. Venues such as festivals, galleries, and underground art parties may be willing to broaden their definition of culture to include science - but only if they are asked. Given the increase in public discourse around the topic of climate change, there is an opportunity to reach people who wouldn't attend a formal science lecture, but might attend a film screening or a fundraiser that had some scientific content. Qualitative audience assessments done after the annual "Mermaid Lagoon," a fundraiser for ocean related causes that includes a scientific segment along with dance and theatrical performances, show increased enthusiasm and support for climate science when it is presented in a relevant, fun, and non-intimidating manner.
Addressing student misconceptions by explicitly discussing values
Michelle Selvans, University of California-Berkeley

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Students bring misconceptions with them into Earth Science classrooms. By addressing incorrect beliefs, instructors give students the opportunity to build an understanding of course content from accurate axioms. One technique that helps correct misconceptions is to give students a chance to reason around those ideas using evidence they have gathered that does not support those particular claims. By scaffolding such experiences with an understanding of the process of scientific inquiry, students can have a chance to address their misconceptions from the perspective of being a scientist, rather than from a perspective of anxiety or embarrassment about having a 'wrong' idea. I pair this approach with another technique I have found to be at least as effective, and perhaps more engaging. I borrow the 'beliefs and values' framing of my training in sociology, and ask students to think about content on this metacognitive level. Helping students distinguish between their beliefs (ideas about 'how things are') and values (ideas about 'how things should be') helps them to do two things. First, when it comes to a controversial Earth science topic (like 'fracking') they can more readily express both their understanding of how it works and their own opinion of it (in terms of societal impact, environmental impact, financial cost, etc.). Second, by being aware that belief is based on evidence and reasoning and values are based on ideals and morals, students can see clearly how the scientific process can address the former but not the latter. They come out of these experiences with a strong sense of their own opinions about societally relevant Earth science topics, and (more importantly in terms of course learning objectives) an understanding of content that can be articulated in terms of supporting evidence.