Teaching Teachers from Texas

Last month, I signed up to help out at a climate literacy workshop conceived by Kathy Ellins and TERC. The workshop was intended for Texas educators (mainly high school science teachers) where (a) EarthLabs material would be presented so it could be used as a teaching aid and (b) climate-science-based misconceptions would be addressed. I was one of three graduate students from the Institute for Geophysics (along with Enrica Quartini and Marie Cavitte) who would essentially aid in the misconceptions department in the first week, but would also get involved in teaching EarthLabs modules in the second week. Each week was a different set of participants. The interesting aspect of this workshop was that other teachers who had participated in previous years' workshops would be teaching this time's participants (aka teacher-leaders).

The participating teachers belonged to a broad spectrum: there were teachers who worked at magnate institutes to those who worked at low-income schools to some who taught at juvenile centers, all the way from Amarillo to McAllen. Despite teaching diverse students who came from different circumstances, the one thing the teachers had in common was an enthusiastic desire to become better science teachers, with a more-than-rudimentary understanding of anthropogenic climate change. Many of them had physics or chemistry backgrounds and very few had studied earth science (though, they were forced to fill in vacancies and teach earth science to their students at their respective schools).

We covered quite a bit of material in a week, all of which was encompassed by three modules - Climate and the Cryosphere, Climate and the Biosphere, and Climate and the Carbon Cycle. The EarthLabs material covers complex topics such as Milankovitch cycles and not unexpectedly, there were quite a few misconceptions and doubts. Many of them seemed to have a vague idea of radiative transfer. For example, a common misconception was that CO2 traps incoming solar radiation as opposed to longwave radiation emitted by the Earth. The usual culprits "how do we know we are causing the current rise in CO2?" and "how do we know current temperature rise isn't natural?" frequently popped up. I was involved in the Carbon Cycle module and lent my hand at answering questions on modes of climate variability and paleoclimatology (this video in particular came in handy). It was good to have two glaciologists (Enrica and Marie) onboard who could elucidate concepts related to ice sheet processes and sea-level rise. Aside from the curriculum-related material, the three of us also gave talks on our research, giving us a chance to show some pretty pictures from the field and at the same time explain the difficulties of field work. Apart from us, we had a couple of professors and scientists give talks on various climate-related concepts including uncertainty, climate policy in Texas and the importance of scientifically sound journalism. Further, we had arranged tours to Jackson School laboratories, where amongst other instruments, the teachers saw the inner-workings of a isotope ratio mass spectrometer.

On the whole, I feel like the entire team (especially the teacher-leaders) did a great job engaging the participants and clearing many of their doubts. All the teachers were very enthusiastic about learning and asked plenty of difficult questions (to some of which there is still no definitive answer). The feedback was overwhelmingly positive (and at the end, all of them knew what a positive feedback loop was!) and most of the teachers felt that they were in a better position to teach climate-related processes using the EarthLabs material. It was particularly interesting to get feedback on what activities would, and more importantly, would not work in their classrooms and how they could modify them to get their students engaged.

From a graduate student's perspective, the teachers (both participants and teacher-leaders) really enjoyed our presentations where we displayed our passion for what we do - science and research. Especially so when an Indian, an Italian, and French graduate students, who left their homes to do field work on the other side of the world all in the name of science, were the ones engaging them! They wanted to infuse a similar flair for science in their own students. Despite a couple of people coming in with a stance against anthropogenic climate change (Texas is a conservative state after all), I think we gave them a glimpse into how much effort the scientific community has put in to understand climate change and how the scientific method corrects itself, and made them rethink their stance - after all they are science teachers!

For my money's worth, the two weeks were highly rewarding. They helped me figure out what strategies are effective in communicating science to people who are willing to learn, listen and understand. I saw that simple analogies done right go a long way in conveying complex concepts. Videos and visualizations of actual data are also extremely compelling. Ultimately, I feel that 'the climate change debate' comes down to a game of trust. I think that more scientists should engage non-scientists, in such workshops and otherwise, and try to convey how much effort goes into research. Finally, I think there is a lot to be said in showing the public that, after all, scientists are people too.