Research on Students' Conceptual Understanding of Environmental, Oceanic, Atmospheric, and Climate Science Content

Cinzia Cervato, Iowa State University; Donna Charlevoix, UNAVCO; Anne Gold, University of Colorado at Boulder; and Hari Kandel, Lake Superior State University


At the interface between atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere, this theme covers content that is societally crucial but publicly controversial and fraught by misconceptions and misinformation (Figure 1).

Climate science is an interdisciplinary field that straddles the natural and social sciences; understanding its processes requires system-thinking, understanding mathematical models, and appreciation of its human and societal components. Recent data show that extreme weather and climate events have become more frequent in the past decades (EASAC, 2018). These include extreme temperatures, floods, like the ones associated with the series of very powerful hurricanes that made an unprecedented number of landfalls in August and September 2017 (Figure 2) and unusual drought conditions and forest fires across the Western US in the summer of 2017 (Figure 3).

Studies like these emphasize the complexity of climate science and highlight the importance of climate change adaptation. However, there is a significant disparity in the distribution of vulnerability and readiness to impacts of climate change with most of Africa and South Asia disproportionately more vulnerable and less equipped to deal with them (Swanson, 2015).

We have identified five Grand Challenges to the conceptual understanding of environmental, oceanic, atmospheric and climate science, and proposed strategies for the geoscience education research community.

Grand Challenges

Grand Challenge 1: How do we identify and address the challenges to the conceptual understanding specific to each discipline: environmental science, ocean sciences, atmospheric sciences, and climate science?

Misconceptions, pre-conceptions, partially correct conceptions, or naive conceptions are a challenge to students' conceptual understanding of the core science. Identifying common misconceptions that are specific to each discipline of the fluid Earth is the first step in addressing these alternative conceptions and ultimately achieving a higher level of conceptual understanding.

Grand Challenge 2: How do we teach complex interconnected Earth systems to build student conceptual understanding of, for example, climate change?

Teaching about complex systems, like changes in climate over multiple temporal and spatial scales, represents a challenge that has been studied extensively. Reviewing existing studies, proposed learning strategies, and drawing from other disciplines would be a valuable contribution to the Geoscience education research community.

Grand Challenge 3: What approaches are effective for students to understand various models (numerical and analytical) that are used for prediction and research in atmospheric, oceanic and climate sciences, including model limitations?

The study of the atmospheric, oceanic, and terrestrial systems is based on models that help simplify these complex systems and are used for prediction. Knowledge of computer programming and advanced math is needed to create, validate or understand these models, making the field less accessible to the broad student population. Thus, instruction in the geosciences needs to increase advance math and programming skills.

Grand Challenge 4: How do the societal influences, affective elements, personal background and beliefs, and prior knowledge impact students' conceptual understanding of Earth system sciences?

Students enter classes with a complex array of beliefs and personal history that shapes their learning and their perception of the relevance of what they are learning within their own lives. Literature about cognitive and metacognitive aspects of learning shows that these external factors have significant influence on students' conceptual understanding, particularly on topics perceived as controversial. Therefore, instruction in these fields requires sensitivity to the context and the prior knowledge and belief systems of students.

Grand Challenge 5: How do we broaden the participation of faculty who are engaged in educational research in environmental sciences, atmospheric sciences, ocean sciences and climate sciences and encourage implementation of research-based instruction?

In the U.S. there are approximately 1,200 faculty in oceanography and atmospheric science/meteorology at 4-year institutions, and four times as many faculty are in the broad field of geology or solid Earth. Overall, there are 75 faculty that identify themselves as Earth science education researchers nationwide, and most of them have a background in geology. This relatively small number of faculty members in fluid Earth science is reflected in the small fraction of the community that is engaged in education research. Such small numbers make it challenging to create a research agenda for this field.

Citation for this chapter: Cervato, Cinzia; Charlevoix, Donna; Gold, Anne; and Kandel, Hari (2018)., "Research on Students' Conceptual Understanding of Environmental, Oceanic, Atmospheric, and Climate Science Content". In St. John, K (Ed.) (2018). Community Framework for Geoscience Education Research. National Association of Geoscience Teachers.

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