Science Wednesday: Making Climate Change the Next “Hot” Topic

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“So how are we going to do this?” was the first question on our lips after we accepted an invitation to speak to a group of middle school students in EPA’s Student Environmental Development Program.  As scientists who focus on highly technical research questions to inform expert stakeholders, it was a rather scary prospect to attempt to convey what we do to a group of 8th graders. How could we discuss our research on climate change effects on the environment in a way that would be fun as well as educational?

What our guest appearance turned out to be was as much a fun, learning experience for us as we hope it was for the students.

“Does anyone know what the difference is between “climate” and “weather”?” Susan asked, as a means of opening her discussion on climate change.  What followed was a delightful and varied array of opinions and anecdotes from the enthusiastic students. We realized that this was an issue that the students were eager to learn more about.

“What is risk? What is adaptation?” Amanda illustrated these concepts with an example of shark attacks at swimming beaches, and asked the students to give examples of ways that communities could reduce risks to swimmers. Their idea of patrolling and marking “safe swimming areas” with buoys was an example of an adaptation, and provided an easy transition into discussing adaptations to climate change by wetlands managers.

“Is a coral an animal or a plant?” Jordan used corals and their sensitivity to climate change to lead the students in an exercise based on a real project in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea. The students were asked to assume the role of coral reef managers and design a network of marine protected areas that would be most resilient to climate change. After only a brief “ training” in concepts of coral biology, physical oceanography, socioeconomics, and resilience theory, the students were surprised and excited to find that they chose the same coral reef areas for protection that a group of experts did!

We hope that this experience showed the students that, while climate change is a serious problem, there is a large community of scientists, managers and concerned citizens who are exploring and implementing actions to address the severest effects on the environment. What we learned was that the complex issues that we study in our research program can indeed be understood and appreciated by any age group. In fact, it is eager and motivated students such as these who will take up the mantle of “saving the world”.

About the authors: Jordan West, Susan Julius, and Amanda Babson work together in EPA’s Global Change Research Program, where they love to debate with their colleagues on how best to” save the world”.

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