A number of sessions at the AGU meeting this week discussed projects to improve climate literacy among different audiences:

  • The Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network (CLEANET), are developing concept maps for use in middle school and high school, along with a large set of pointers to educational resources on climate and energy for use in the classroom.
  • The Climate Literacy Zoo Education Network (CliZEN). Michael Mann (of Hockey Stick Fame) talked about this project, which was a rather nice uplifting change from hearing about his experiences with political attacks on his work. This is a pilot effort, currently involving ten zoos, mainly in the north east US. So far, they have completed a visitor survey across a network of zoos, plus some aquaria, exploring the views of visitors on climate change, using the categories of the Six Americas report. The data they have collected show that zoo visitors tend to be more skewed towards the “alarmed” category compared to the general US population. [Incidentally, I’m impressed with their sample size: 3,558 responses. The original Six Americas study only had 981, and most surveys in my field have much smaller sample sizes]. The next steps in the project are to build on this audience analysis to put together targeted information and education material that links what we know about climate climate with it’s impact on specific animals at the zoos (especially polar animals).
  • The Climate Interpreter Project. Bill Spitzer from the New England Aquarium talked about this project. Bill points out that aquaria (and museums, zoos etc) are have an important role to play, because people come for the experience, which must be enjoyable, but they do expect to learn something, and they do trust museums and zoos to provide them accurate information. This project focusses on the role of interpreters and volunteers, who are important because they tend to be more passionate, more knowledgeable, and come into contact with many people. But many interpreters are not yet comfortable in talking about issues around climate change. They need help, and training. Interpretation isn’t just transmission of information. It’s about translating science in a way that’s meaningful and resonates with an audience. It requires a systems perspective. The strategy adopted by this project is to begin with audience research, to understand people’s interests and passions; connect this with the cognitive and social sciences on how people learn, and how they make sense of what they’re hearing; and finally to make use of strategic framing, which gets away from the ‘crisis’ frame that dominates most news reporting (on crime, disasters, fires), but which tends to leave people feeling overwhelmed, which leads them to treat it as someone else’s problem. Thinking explicitly about framing allows you to connect information about climate change with people’s values, with what they’re passionate about, and even with their sense of self-identity. The website climateinterpreter.org describes what they’ve learnt so far
    (As an aside, Bill points out that it can’t just be about training the interpreters – you need institutional support and leadership, if they are to focus on a controversial issue. Which got me thinking about why science museums tend to avoid talking much about climate change – it’s easy for the boards of directors to avoid the issue, because of worries about whether it’s politically sensitive, and hence might affect fundraising.)
  • The WorldViews Network. Rachel Connolly from Nova/WGBH presented this collaboration between museums, scientists and TV networks. Partners include planetariums and groups interested in data visualization, GIS data, mapping, many from an astronomy background. Their 3-pronged approach, called TPACK, identifies three types of knowledge: technological, pedagogical, and content knowledge.  The aim is to take people from seeing, to knowing, to doing. For example, they might start with a dome presentation, but bring into it live and interactive web resources, and then move on to community dialogues. Storylines use visualizations that move seamlessly across scale: cosmic, global, bioregional. They draw a lot on the ideas from Rockstrom’s planetary boundaries, within which they’r focussing on three: climate, biodiversity loss and ocean acidification. A recent example from Denver, in May, focussed on water. On the cosmic scale, they look at where water comes from as planets are formed. They eventually bring this down to the bioregional scale, looking at the rivershed for Denver, and the pressures on the Colorado River. Good visual design is a crucial part of the project (Rachel showed a neat example of a visualization of the size of water on the planet: comparing all water, with fresh water and frozen water. Another fascinating example was a satellite picture of the border of Egypt and Israel, where the different water management strategies either side of the border produce a starkly visible difference either side of the border. (Rachel also recommended Sciencecafes.org and the Buckminster Fuller Challenge).
  • ClimateCommunication.org. There was a lot of talk through the week about this project, led by Susan Hassol and Richard Somerville, especially their recent paper in Physics Today, which explores the use of jargon, and how it can mislead the general public. The paper went viral on the internet shortly after it was published, and and they used an open google doc to collect many more examples. Scientists are often completely unaware the non-specialists have different meaning for jargon terms, which can  then become a barrier for communication. My favourite examples from Susan’s list are “aerosol”, which to the public means a spray can (leading to a quip by Glenn Beck who had heard that aerosols cool the planet); ‘enhanced’, which the public understands as ‘made better’ so the ‘enhanced greenhouse effect’ sounds like a good thing, and ‘positive feedback’ which also sounds like a good thing, as it suggests a reward for doing something good.
  • Finally, slightly off topic, but I was amused by the Union of Concerned Scientists’ periodic table of political interferences in science.

5 Comments

  1. > “…aquaria (and museums, zoos etc) are have an important role to play, because people come for the experience, which must be enjoyable, but they do expect to learn something”

    Given their importance for adult(& other) education, the museums’ exhibits (or absence thereof) should be reviewed & accredited (or not) by independent science-aligned educators, so we can stop getting (or at least be more informed about ) the personal-carbon-footprint-misfocused “here’s how to act as a citizen” displays, & be spared further Smithsonian Human Origins-style “climate change made us the adaptable resilient folk we are today” (by killing off most of us) exhibits.

    > “why science museums tend to avoid talking much about climate change – it’s easy for the boards of directors to avoid the issue, because of worries about whether it’s politically sensitive, and hence might affect fundraising.”

    Hmmm. Maybe someone should be naming the board members of the museums that fail to inform? since their descendants will want to honor them appropriately.

  2. We need a Race to the Top for museums, aquaria, etc. A visionary foundation (yo, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation…) provides incentives and structure. We can measure (short-term) effectiveness of the displays – a random sample of museum entrants are offered a quiz in exchange for an admission discount; a random sample of those departing are offered a quiz in exchange for some other near-term perk.

    Publicly rate these institutions by their effectiveness – reward the best & remodel the worst. And if any turn out to be the Fox News of museums – Agnogenesis Central – cut off their accreditation & funding.

  3. > “The paper went viral on the internet shortly after it was published, and and they used an open google doc to collect many more examples”

    Can you post a link to that google doc? I’d be curious to see what other examples people came up with.

  4. @Elizabeth Patitsas : I looked for it yesterday when I was writing the post, but couldn’t find it. Luckily my google-fu is working better today:
    The google doc of scientific jargon, courtesy of BoingBoing.

  5. Thanks Steve for posting this. I was wondering what happened to education and outreach this year. It seems that most of the scientists are content to just talk science with each other. This list of teaching resources alone is a treasure! I’ll mention your article a few other places where it might reach more of those who will use it.

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