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Agencies Join Forces for Climate Education
NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have joined forces in an effort to streamline climate education into something that is relatable, recognizable and effective.

The collaboration recently brought together more than 200 climate change education scientists and educators from projects funded by the three agencies who spent several days networking, sharing ideas, reviewing projects and looking for ways to leverage each other's work. All had the same goal: teaching the public -- i.e. K-12 teachers, undergraduates, the media, college professors, informal educators -- about the science of global climate change and preparing the next generation of scientists and educators working in climate-related fields.

NASA's Ed Weiler uses the Science on a Sphere exhibit to make a presentation to Queen Elizabeth
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NASA's Ed Weiler uses the Science on a Sphere exhibit to make a presentation to Queen Elizabeth. Credit: NASA/GSFC

"When we look at climate change, the scale of the issue is so large and complex that bringing together a lot of creative people -- not just those funded by the National Science Foundation -- should spur some new thinking and advance our ideas about how to improve climate change education," said Jill Karsten, program director for Education and Diversity in NSF's Geosciences Directorate. "The national network created through personal interactions at such meetings also helps accelerate the pace of dissemination when effective pedagogical models and resources are developed."

With mandates from Congress to increase global climate change literacy among educators and students, federal agencies began the process of implementing programs and awarding cooperative agreements and grants each year to further climate science education. Those involved with the issues quickly realized the importance of working collaboratively. When agencies and projects are communicating with each other, they avoid duplicating efforts and can reach a more diverse audience.

"In working together on climate change education, NASA, NOAA, and NSF achieve a multiplier effect," said Sharon Welch, project manager of NASA's Global Climate Change Education (GCCE) Initiative. "The investments made by each agency go much further as best practices and new approaches are shared, strengthening projects, and stimulating innovation across all three agencies. Because NASA, NOAA, and NSF co-lead the Education Interagency Working Group of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, other agencies working on climate change research and education also benefit from this collaboration."

"Not only does such coordination minimize duplication among these programs, but the overall effort is enhanced also because each agency brings a complementary mission-driven focus to this complex, large-scale issue," added Louisa Koch, director of education for NOAA.

Why should the public care? Put simply, climate change affects everyone on Earth.

"Everybody should have an understanding about the human and natural factors that contribute to climate change and how climate change can affect our lives in the future," said Lin Chambers, a scientist with NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., and project scientist with NASA's GCCE Initiative. "Decisions we make now will affect changes that occur over the next 100-plus years. The impact won't be seen for some time, but the decisions need to be made very soon. It's a challenge to the way humans think about our environment."

Climate science can be a complex concept to teach for many reasons, ranging from academic to political. Often, educators are uncomfortable with their own knowledge of climate science, are unsure of how to incorporate it into their curriculum or are concerned about public controversy surrounding the subject.

"I think that, in general, climate science and Earth system science are complex subjects to teach because the basic concepts draw from multiple scientific disciplines, as well as math," said Welch. "To teach climate and Earth system science well requires integration of chemistry, biology, physics, and math concepts. At the K-12, and even the undergraduate levels, science and math classes are not typically well integrated."

Others just have a hard time grasping the concept, and sometimes scientist "lingo" makes it even more difficult for people to understand.

At the tri-agency meeting, scientists got a lesson in "communications" from speaker Susan Hassol who offered a list of at least 100 words and phrases educators and scientists should stay away from when trying to communicate climate science, because they mean completely different things to different groups.

"Green house gases" is an example of a phrase to stay away from.

"Education takes place only when we communicate effectively," Welch said. "When we communicate in a language that is unfamiliar to our audience, or draw analogies that do not have meaning or have a different meaning to our audience than we intended, we impede learning."

Other topics addressed at the meeting were: Common Misconceptions and How to Address Them, Reaching Diverse and Underserved Audiences, Getting Climate Change into K-12 Standards and Assessments, Using Technology and Data and Evaluation and Metrics.

In a post-meeting survey, attendees reported they benefited greatly from interfacing with others who are also trying to improve climate science education.

One participant wrote: "We had the opportunity to meet with and strategize ideas for collaboration with other projects – one of which we had identified prior to the conference, and one project that, we realized after learning more about them, we had some common issues and reasons to collaborate."

Another commented: "I learned that there are many challenges in getting standards implemented in the classroom and that we need to help the teachers implement new standards…"

Chambers and Welch expect many beneficial outcomes as a result of the meeting.

"We've had several examples of positive collaborations after a smaller, NASA only, meeting held here at Langley last April," Chambers said.

For example, two NASA-funded projects joined forces to leverage strengths, sending teachers from one project to a training workshop put on by the other project, and allowing the first project to concentrate more on systemic change within a state university system.

This year's meeting has already resulted in some important outcomes, and more will emerge over the next few months. Already the evaluation community supporting these projects has begun sharing information and strategies across all three agencies. Agency personnel are working on a common collaboration web space under the auspices of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. And project teams across the country are cementing new connections.