Research Summary

Youth science expertise, environmental identity, and agency in climate action filmmaking

Examining increases in youth science and identity outcomes from climate action filmmaking

Environmental Education Research

The consequences of climate change are already visible in communities across the globe, and despite the rapidly increasing impacts, widespread social and governmental changes have not occurred. While the majority of decision-makers are members of socially dominant groups in the United States (e.g., white, middle-to-upper class, male), climate change most affects often-underrepresented groups, such as youth and low-income communities of color. Research indicates that storytelling can help link young people’s experiences at home, in school, and in their community. This study explored the impacts of the GENIE (Green Ninja Film Academy) curriculum. This curriculum combines climate science with digital storytelling, promotes student science agency (one’s belief in their own ability to do science) and environmental identity (EI). The GENIE curriculum seeks to give students the opportunity to tell their own stories about climate science through filmmaking in their own communities. In addition, the goal is to elevate young, diverse voices in the climate change discussion. In this study, the authors investigated three questions: (1) Did integrating science with digital storytelling have an impact on students’ climate science knowledge? (2) Did integrating science and storytelling affect learners’ environmental identity and/or agency? And, (3) what aspects of the digital storytelling climate change curriculum were most or least engaging for students?

Previous studies have indicated that using storytelling in environmental programming can deepen learning and promote EI formation (i.e., seeing oneself as someone who takes environmental action). Storytelling can also promote agency, or one’s perception of their own ability to make change in the world. Agency can help overcome climate hopelessness and despair, as well as lift up voices of those often underrepresented in the climate issue. The authors of the study investigated how the GENIE curriculum impacted participating middle school students’ knowledge of climate change, EI, and agency.

In spring 2017, the GENIE curriculum was implemented in four middle schools across the Western and Midwestern United States with 296 middle school students. In spring 2018, a revised GENIE curriculum was implemented in the Western United States in seven schools, reaching 539 middle school students. In total, students made 125 videos. All students (835 total) completed pre- and post-surveys after the implementation of the six-week GENIE curriculum. The authors measured knowledge of climate science using the Environmental Index (IA) and Science Index (SI) scales, environmental identity using the Environmental Identity (EI) scale, and agency using the Identity and Agency Assessment (IAA) scale. In 2017, students from a 6th-grade class participated in interviews after the curriculum and activities to explore additional nuances within the program, their level of engagement with the GENIE curriculum, and climate change. Researchers also evaluated student film portfolios that included written information about their films and conducted interviews to assess the most engaging aspects of the GENIE experience. Data for the portfolio were analyzed using a grading rubric with categories related to content and the technical aspects of their films. The authors analyzed the survey data using statistics and identified themes in the interviews.

In both 2017 and 2018, the findings indicated that participants gained climate science content knowledge. In interviews, participants remarked that they felt as though they had an increased understanding of climate science as a result of the GENIE curriculum. Most participants expressed that they enjoyed making the films, particularly in terms of the freedom and creativity offered to them through the filmmaking process.

The study did not find changes among participants’ EI and agency. The authors found that the 2018 participants who initially had low EI tended to have increased EI after participating in GENIE; conversely, students who initially had a strong EI tended to decrease after participating in GENIE. The authors suggested that a possible explanation may be that students felt dismayed by the scope of the climate change issue, which could have contributed to lower levels of identity and agency after learning more about the problem. Participants who did not initially have a strong EI reported that they had either become more aware of how to act on climate change or that they thought acting on climate change was more important than they previously thought.

This study had limitations. The authors argued that, given the complexity of environmental identities and environmental variables, additional interviews should be conducted to uncover nuances around climate science learning and action. Additionally, the researchers worked across multiple schools with varied school cultures, and the specific classroom context or teacher may have impacted results. The researchers suggested that future work could explore the impact of teacher pedagogy on relationships between student science, environmental knowledge, identity, and perceptions of taking action.

Digital storytelling and filmmaking can be a promising educational tool for engaging youth in climate action and uplifting youth voices on the topic of climate change, which is imperative to work on climate change action. Moving forward in climate change work, student participation in conversations and decision-making must be prioritized. Digital storytelling may provide a way to involve young people from diverse backgrounds and communities in a meaningful way.

The Bottom Line

Middle school students who engaged with the GENIE climate science and filmmaking curriculum showed gains in climate science content knowledge, but not environmental identity or agency. The results from this study suggest that digital storytelling may be best at engaging students who do not already identify as good environmental citizens.