Research Summary

Can climate change enhance biology lessons? A quasi-experiment

Teaching Climate Change Alongside the Carbon Cycle to Improve Learning

Applied Environmental Education & Communication
2016

Climate change can be a confusing issue for much of the U.S. public. Similarly, and often as a result of its relation to the public discourse, teaching about climate change can at times be challenging for K–12 science teachers. This study proposes a potential way to address some of those challenges: teach climate change alongside the carbon cycle rather than separately from the standard curriculum. The authors suggest that climate change-related content fits naturally within a carbon cycle unit. The researchers hypothesized that, if students are interested in learning about climate change, then this teaching technique might also improve students’ understanding of the carbon cycle. In short, attitudes about climate might influence learning about the carbon cycle.

To test these ideas, the researchers assessed and interviewed two groups of ninth-grade students who had learned about the carbon cycle at a weeklong summer science program in Florida. The treatment group (23 students) learned about climate change at the same time as learning about the carbon cycle, while the comparison group (24 students) learned about the carbon cycle first and then separately learned about climate change. All of the students took short pre- and post-tests on carbon-cycle comprehension. The researchers also investigated the students’ beliefs about climate change using focus-group interviews.

Findings indicated that integrating climate change-related content in lessons about the carbon cycle effectively enhanced learning comprehension, as well as subject-matter interest. By the end of the program, students who had learned about climate change embedded within the carbon-cycle lesson scored higher on the comprehension quiz than those in the comparison group. In the follow-up focus groups, most of the students said that they found learning about the carbon cycle to be more interesting when the educators included climate change-related information.

The researchers also analyzed data on the political views of the students’ parents to see whether students whose parents held more conservative-leaning perspectives were less interested in learning about climate change. Comparing students who reported that their parents were Republicans with those who reported that their parents were Democrats, the researchers found no significant difference in students’ interest in climate change (measured at post-test) or in knowledge gain from pre- to post-test.

Several key aspects of this study are important to note when considering the applicability of these findings to K–12 school settings. First, the researchers conducted the study with summer science-program participants; therefore, it is likely that the participants already had a relatively high level of interest in science. Second, the sample size was small (47 participants). Third, researchers collected the follow-up data through focus groups, in which context and dynamics may have influenced participants’ responses.

The Bottom Line

Educators may find that developing activities and units that intertwine related topics, such as the carbon cycle and climate change, and showing how the topics are related may have benefits on several dimensions. In this study, students who learned about the carbon cycle in the context of climate change tested higher in their carbon-cycle comprehension. The students also found the carbon cycle more interesting when teachers included information about climate change at the same time. These enhanced outcomes may derive from the heightened relevance that occurs when demonstrating connections among various topics.