Research Summary

Unpacking the power of place-based education in climate change communication

A climate change toolkit can make place-based education more effective

Applied Environmental Education & Communication
2021

Climate change is a complex topic to teach, and challenges arise in inspiring pro-environmental behaviors in students based on the content teachers provide. For example, climate change causes and effects are hard to understand when elements like greenhouse gases are invisible to the human eye. Further, the impacted areas of climate change receiving the most attention for scientific research typically lie far from the average person, like the Arctic or a coral reef, and thus are not relevant enough to cause motivation to act. However, parks and other natural areas provide a tangible experience for students to observe climate change in their local area. The researchers in this study used a climate change toolkit in a place-based program to reveal the extent to which place-based learning and the toolkit affected participant knowledge, attitude, and behavior.

The climate change toolkit was made for the study by the researchers. This toolkit included a poster, guided hike, and self-evaluation specific to the study conditions. It was based on four major pedagogies of environmental education: 1) place-based education, during which students learn relevant topics in a specific environment and have access to hands-on activities; 2) place attachment, in which a person develops a bond with a specific location or region; 3) free-choice learning, where there is little structure to the lesson and students have the freedom to experience and learn at their own pace; and, 4) norm activation theory, in which a student’s moral responsibility guides them to take action based on the situation.

The study was conducted in 2018 with 29 high schoolers between 15- and 16-years-old. The students were participating in a week-long residential summer camp, hosted by the University of Missouri, at Prairie Fork Conservation Area in Missouri. The researchers implemented their climate change toolkit, which was an hour and a half long program featuring a poster presentation, guided hike, and self-evaluation. The poster depicted climate change in Missouri and suggestions regarding how students could act in climate-conscious ways. Students learned more about climate change and how to spot its effects during the guided hike. The self-evaluation asked students to score on a numbered scale of never to always the frequency with which they did or could participate in specific activities to reduce climate change effects at home and in other places. The scores were added by the participant to find the recommendation based on the answer score such as “on the right track” or “try harder.” In addition, the researchers also collected pre- and post-activity data. The pre-test included 39 questions about climate change knowledge, awareness, responsibility, hope, and behaviors. Though the answers varied and there were instances of multiple-choice questions particularly in the knowledge section, most questions were answered on a scale. For example, some questions asked participants to rank their level of agreement to a statement (strongly disagree to strongly agree), while others asked participants to rank their level of awareness (not at all informed to very well informed). The post-test included 44 questions, with 5 open-ended questions about the toolkit. The remaining 39 questions were identical to those in the pre-test. The student responses to both the pre-test and post-tests were analyzed and compared to test the effectiveness of the climate change toolkit.

The data showed significant increases across the climate change assessment sections (knowledge, awareness, sense of responsibility, sense of hope, and intended behavior). However, the most significant increases were within the knowledge and awareness measures. From the open-ended questions in the post-test about the climate change toolkit, the participants reported learning more about climate change impacts to the local environment and solutions to mitigate those impacts. The participants also shared an increased willingness to talk about climate change with their friends and family, to change their behavior based on what they learned about climate change, and to learn more about climate change. The researchers concluded that place-based education and climate change toolkits like the one deployed in this study could positively impact student understanding and sensitivity to climate change as well as the commitment and motivation to act in environmentally friendly ways.

Because the participants were attending the summer camp, they were presumably interested in science. This bias may falsely indicate that a place-based educational experience and climate change toolkit can have a significant impact on all students in such a short time. This limited the study, so the results are not generalizable.

The researchers claimed that this study proved the effectiveness of place-based education for teaching students about climate change. Further, they suggested that a climate change toolkit like the one they used can help educators teach climate change more effectively. The researchers recommended that place-based education about climate change be framed in such a way that showcases specific impacts to the local area, demonstrates urgency to act, and connects to the daily habits of students.

The Bottom Line

Climate change is a complex topic to teach with challenges in inspiring pro-environmental behaviors just based on the content teachers provide. Parks can provide a tangible experience for students to observe climate change in their local area and develop a sense of responsibility to act. The researchers deployed a climate change toolkit in a place-based program with a group of high schoolers in a conservation area in Missouri to measure the extent to which place-based learning and the toolkit affected participant knowledge, attitude, and behavior. The data revealed a significant increase across the pre-activity and post-activity assessments for all measures of climate change knowledge, awareness, sense of responsibility, sense of hope, and intended behavior. The researchers recommended that place-based education about climate change showcase specific impacts to the local area, demonstrate urgency to act, and connects to the daily habits of students.