Research Summary

Assessing elementary science methods students' understanding about global climate change

Climate Training Boosts Teacher Knowledge of Climate Change

International Journal of Science Education

Previous research has shown that K-12 students often hold misconceptions of key ideas in climate change, and many of these misconceptions remain even after the student has undergone instruction. Studies have also demonstrated that many elementary school teachers do not have a functional understanding of these complex concepts, making it challenging, if not impossible, for them to deliver quality climate-change instruction to their students. This study sought to assess preservice and practicing teachers’ knowledge about climate change. The participating teachers received an instructional intervention and were given pre- and post-tests about their understanding of climate change in four key areas.

In total, 149 current and aspiring teachers were included in the study. The teachers were a mix of undergraduate students in a preservice program and graduate students working toward a master’s degree. All participants were enrolled in a methods course on teaching science. The tool used to assess the teachers’ knowledge of these concepts was called the Knowledge of Global Climate Change (KGCC) instrument. This instrument was developed around four constructs: the greenhouse effect, the carbon cycle, causes of climate change, and consequences of climate change. Results from the pre-and post-tests were analyzed in each of these conceptual areas. Responses were scored according to a rubric designed for the instrument.

The study found that knowledge of climate change science increased among teachers after the intervention. Additionally, teachers “developed more interest and confidence in learning about climate change.” Lastly, participants had more positive views about the nature of science and climate change after completing the course. The authors further specified the results by conceptual area. In terms of the greenhouse effect, most teachers were not able to accurately demonstrate understanding of this process before the intervention. After the intervention, some teachers expressed an increased understanding while many others still expressed misconceptions about greenhouse gases and the greenhouse effect. With the carbon cycle, teachers were generally unable to describe any part of the carbon cycle before the intervention. After the intervention, most of the teachers were able to express some understanding of these processes.

In analyzing responses to questions asking about the causes of climate change, the authors concluded that the teachers had difficulty expressing the differences between climate and weather, though there was improvement in this area after the intervention. Teachers were most successful in the last conceptual area, the consequences of climate change. Pre-test scores in this area were the highest, though the teachers demonstrated a lack of understanding about the relationship between climate change and oceans. The authors point out that although the knowledge gains from this intervention might not have been drastic, they were acceptable for a short-term intervention such as this one. Also, the teachers who participated in the intervention were “more interested and motivated to study the climate change issue in more depth” after the instructional unit.

The Bottom Line

There is a widespread lack of understanding of central scientific concepts in the area of climate change. Although more general public education is important and necessary, it is also essential that teachers have a correct conceptual understanding of climate change and develop confidence around teaching these concepts. Interventions such as the one described in this article—which provides science and climate change education for educators—can help build both conceptual understanding and teachers’ confidence in and ability to teach about climate change with students.