Clarkson's Sue Powers: Project-Based Education Builds Climate Literacy

Most Americans believe climate change is real but rank it a low national priority. AnApril 4 Gallup Poll makes the contrast with public concern about water, a top ranking issue:

Susan E. Powers, PhD , Associate Director for Sustainability, Clarkson University  Institute for a Sustainable Environment

Susan E. Powers, PhD, Associate Director for Sustainability, Clarkson University Institute for a Sustainable Environment

[P]ollution of drinking water is Americans’ greatest environmental worry, and this shows that environmental concerns are — understandably — quite personal, and that worries are highest when issues have a direct effect on daily lives.

The implication is clear; a majority of the public considers climate change more a phenomenon than a personal concern. This begs the question: How do we make citizens more climate literate?

For Dr. Susan E. Powers, Associate Director for Sustainability at Clarkson University’s Institute for a Sustainable Environment, the solution is equally clear. Make climate education more personal.

A recent paper by Powers and Clarkson colleagues Suresh Dhaniyala, PhDJan DeWaters, PhD, PE, and Mary Margaret Small, Ed.D. finds project-based learning, that is, education centered on real-life problems and projects:

[I]mproves student retention of science concepts, mainly because students learn more when they are interested and actively involved in what they are doing and when they understand the relevance of the material to their own lives.

Sixty-three years of climate change.  NASA [Public domain],  via Wikimedia Commons

Sixty-three years of climate change. NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As part of their three-year study, New Project-based Instructional Modules Improve Climate Literacyfunded by NASA’s Innovations in Climate Education program, the Clarkson team developed 10 climate-based project modules that “incorporate guided exploration of climate change effects.” The modules, designed for middle school, high school and college students, range from “Apples in NY” to “Arctic Ice” and use tools as diverse as Google Earth and satellite data across seven climate topics, such as adaptation, mitigation and personal choices.


The team found that the exercises were successful at engaging students and fostering an understanding of climate change and its real-world impacts:

A pre- and post-climate literacy survey showed statistically significant gains in teachers’ and students’ climate-related content knowledge and affect.

One challenge that emerged was the inability of some educators and students to command the quantitative skills necessary to understand and explore climate data. This led the team to conclude:

These observations point to the need for students at any level to have strong fundamental STEM skills in order to approach engineering analysis projects. At the same time, our design of such experiences must recognize the breadth of capabilities with built in alternative approaches for teachers to integrate real-world earth and energy system projects in their class rooms in a way that they are comfortable yet their students are challenged with student-centered approaches to learning.

In an email exchange with Watermark, Dr. Powers added:

I just did a two-day World Climate Negotiations Simulation this week.  It was powerful. We simulated the negotiations that will be happening for a global treaty at COP21 in Paris next year. I think that the timeliness of that event made our class even more relevant. All of the students in my class are engineers.  I believe that it is really important to get engineering students into a climate change class.

To read New Project-based Instructional Modules Improve Climate Literacy,  follow this link.

To view the Clarkson team’s climate modules, follow this link.

To learn more about the World Climate Negotiations Simulation, follow this link.