Research on Students' Conceptual Understanding of Environmental, Ocean, Atmosphere, and Climate Science Content
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Authors: Cinzia Cervato, Iowa State University; Donna Charlevoix, UNAVCO; Anne Gold, University of Colorado at Boulder; and Hari Kandel, SUNY College at Oneonta
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 (Fig. 1).
Our planet is experiencing hazardous natural events of a magnitude and at a rate not recorded before, like the series of very powerful hurricanes that made an unprecedented number of landfalls in August and September 2017, bringing flooding and destruction to much of the southern U.S. and Caribbean regions (Figure 2), and persisting drought conditions in the West that generated widespread wildfires affecting the air quality of a large portion of the continent (Figure 3). Climate science is an interdisciplinary discipline that straddles the natural and social sciences: understanding its processes requires system-thinking, understanding of mathematical models, and appreciation of its human and societal components.
We have identified five Grand Challenges to the conceptual understanding of this content and its significance, and proposed strategies for the geoscience education research community.
Jump Down To: Grand Challenge 1 | Grand Challenge 2 | Grand Challenge 3 | Grand Challenge 4 | Grand Challenge 5
Figure 2: Category 5 hurricanes José and Maria on September 19, 2017.
Figure 3: Wildfire smoke crosses the U.S. via the jet stream on September 4, 2017. Images courtesy of NASA.
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. Identifying misconceptions that are specific to each discipline of the fluid Earth is the first step in achieving a higher level of conceptual understanding. This can be done using concept inventories, surveys, or focus group interviews (e.g., Arthurs et al., 2015; Robelia & Murphy, 2012).
Project 2061 contains assessment items that target core concepts and misconceptions in the Earth, life, and physical sciences. Each question contains data on the percentage of middle and high school students that answered it correctly. It also contains information on the misconception held by students who answered incorrectly (Prud'homme-Generaux, 2017). There are more than 80 documented misconceptions in the weather and climate theme, including basic concepts and seasonal differences. The website also includes an extensive list of references to studies that explore or unveil misconceptions. Since they are challenging to replace, it is likely that misconceptions held by middle and high school students will persist in college, making the Project 2061 information very valuable for the GER community (Prud'homme-Generaux, 2017).
A review of the literature on misconceptions is available for the solid Earth (Francek, 2013) but research on conceptual understanding of the fluid Earth is scattered among several journals: misconceptions related to tornadoes (Van Den Broeke and Arthurs, 2015), climate change (Huxter et al., 2015), environmental issues (Khalid, 2001; Robelia and Murphy, 2012), ozone formation (Howard et al., 2013), atmospheric pressure (Tytler, 1998), air motion (Papadimitriou, 2001), ocean acidification (Danielson and Tanner, 2015), the greenhouse effect (Boyes & Stanisstreet, 1993; Harris & Gold, 2017), and sea-level rise (Gillette and Hamilton, 2011). Making available a compilation of common misconceptions to educators through an organized review would be a valuable contribution of the GER community.
- The most common barrier to conceptual understanding are existing misconceptions or pre-conceptions, thus identifying them is the first step. Assessment instruments, like the Force Concept Inventory used in physics or the Geoscience Concept Inventory, are commonly used to identify misconceptions: we recommend the creation and/or dissemination of concept inventories about oceanography, climate, and weather as a valuable contribution from the GER community to educators. The Fundamentals in Meteorology Inventory assessment exam (Davenport et al., 2015) could be used as a starting point. The Climate Literacy Principles (USGCRP, 2009) could be used as a compilation of the big ideas in climate science and to organize common misconceptions.
- Existing literature focuses on specific misconceptions within the fields of oceanography, environment, climate and weather science for specific populations. An extensive overview of misconceptions on weather and climate is included in Project 2061 but this tool is not widely used by college instructors. A literature review that summarizes what we already know, and how misconceptions compare in different populations, will be a useful guide for future research and educators.
Grand Challenge #2: How do we teach complex interconnected Earth systems to build student conceptual understanding, e.g., climate change?
Teaching about complex systems (e.g. Scherer et al., 2017, Holden et al., 2017), like changes in climate over multiple temporal and spatial scales, represents a challenge that has been studied extensively. Reviewing existing studies, and proposed learning strategies (e.g. Gunckel et al., 2012, Mohan et al., 2009; McNeal et al., 2014; Bush et al., 2016) and drawing from other disciplines would be a valuable contribution to the Earth science community. Learning progression research conducted in the K-12 realm (Songer et al., 2009) can inform instruction in higher education, in particular within the area of interconnected Earth systems. Learning progressions are "descriptions of the successively more sophisticated ways of thinking about a topic that can follow one another as children learn about and investigate a topic over a broad span of time." (Duschl et al., 2007).
- Recent literature reviews on student learning of complex Earth systems (Holder et al., 2017; Scherer et al., 2017) provide the GER community with a foundation that can be used to study the conceptual understanding of climate change. Identifying examples from other disciplines (e.g., engineering) can provide a broader context for future research.
- Inquiry and problem-based education have shown promise in enhancing learning of complex systems like climate change. We propose to expand testing of instructional strategies that have shown impact on learning to a broad range of learning environments (e.g., online, introductory, upper-level undergraduate, pre-service teachers, informal) and student populations.
- Examination of learning progression research conducted in and developed for the K-12 setting can inform GER strategies used to research undergraduate students' development of understanding complex Earth systems. Adapting such research findings and strategies also has the potential to better align and understand the knowledge that students hold upon entering the higher education system to study earth and environmental sciences.
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 are used for prediction and for the conceptual understanding of these complex systems. 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 (Ledley et al., 2011; Hamilton, 2015; Hamilton et al., 2015).
Another challenge to the use of systems models in atmospheric science is the fact that uncertainty is inherent in them, yet education research shows that novices are not comfortable with uncertainty. This requires a simplification of the models to adapt them to the student population and the implementation of targeted approaches (e.g., Gold et al., 2015).
Unanticipated changes in the forcing functions of the system resulting from unpredictability of human behavior (Konikow, 1986) that commonly involve activities such as increased water use and land conversion further demands continuous upgrade and creation of new models (Oreskes, 2003). Therefore, time-to-time update in our modeling curriculum makes it challenging for students to grasp completely new materials.
- Two working groups are focusing on the cognitive understanding of complex systems. Other DBER communities have conducted research in educational approaches that are effective for the understanding of models. We recommend that education researchers refer to contributions of these groups to identify research paths for the fluid Earth community.
- The most important aspect of teaching models is to be able to minimize or even eliminate the widespread skepticism students have about outcomes of the models. Research works on learning impacts of various models dividing them into two groups: i) models that have their validation index reported or that can be validated with existing data, and ii) models that lack validation measures; it would be helpful for educators to select models in teaching and highlight their differences.
- Research on how to prepare an inventory of the modeling as decision-support tools in the context of resource management would help students appreciate the importance of understanding models.
Grand Challenge #4: How do the societal influences, affective elements, personal background and beliefs, and prior-knowledge of students impact their 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 (e.g., Vaughn & Robbins, 2017; Walker et al., 2017). Religious beliefs, political inclination, and social identity are strongly correlated with the acceptance or rejection of perceived controversial science topics like evolution, vaccination benefits, and climate change (Walker et al., 2017)
The strong disconnect between scientific views of climate change and the public perception of the scientific consensus (Figure 1), fueled by media and various interest groups, is a formidable challenge for educators (Walker et al., 2017) and has striking similarities to challenges encountered in teaching evolution in the United States.
Social identity theory hypothesizes that people sort themselves into groups based on perceived similarities (e.g., religion, political inclination) and that they hold onto the opinions of the group to remain part of it, a phenomenon known as identity-protective cognition (IPC, Kahan et al., 2007; Kahan, 2010). Studies have shown that, for example, teaching the evidence of climate change is not sufficient, or even counterproductive (Maibach et al., 2009; Kahan, 2015; Walker et al., 2017). Using stories (Clough, 2011), addressing the connection between student identity and acceptance of certain scientific conclusions (Walker et al., 2017), building from personal background and beliefs, rather than challenging them (e.g., Nadelson & Southerland, 2010; Catley et al., 2005), and focusing on solutions as well as challenges (McCaffery & Buhr, 2007) are powerful teaching approaches.
- We recommend the use of research-based evidence in developing curriculum and formal and informal instructional guides for instructors in how to approach teaching about controversial topics like climate change. Instructions guides would focus on best practices for teaching students about identity-protective cognition and acknowledging external influences on scientific opinions.
- The perceived controversy about anthropogenic climate warming is created by groups that organize climate change deniers; learning more in detail about the efforts and agenda of these groups can be used to inform students about misinformation. The GER community should draw on literature in the information sciences, specifically on the importance of information literacy in higher education (Flierl, 2017) and the use of misinformation as a teaching tool (Bedford & Cook, 2013).
- Incorporating feedback of human-induced alterations in complex natural system and realizing effects of extreme events of climate change in society requires collaboration between natural and social scientists. Connecting with social scientists doing similar work to create multidisciplinary research and then spreading the resulting messages to community would broaden the impact of this field (Morss et al., 2016; Morss & Zhang, 2008).
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 implementing 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 (Wilson, 2016). This difference in numbers is reflected in the size of the community engaged in education research in the fluid Earth field, which makes it challenging to create a research agenda for it.
Calls for a more research-based approach to understanding student learning were made a decade ago (Charlevoix, 2008), and with the GER community not firmly established there is reluctance for university departments to dedicate faculty lines. The interdisciplinary nature of GER is also a challenge for many universities as it relates to tenure-track positions with the tenure process being either less clear or more onerous (O'Meara & Rice, 2005; Trower, 2008; O'Meara, 2010). Efforts and collaborations are underway in the social sciences to connect the research, application, and operation aspects of atmospheric sciences. The GER community could learn from this group as we develop and expand our community (Jacobs et al., 2005; Feldman & Ingram, 2009). Making the work of GER meaningful to faculty across the country can help broaden participation.
- Information on the importance and relevancy of GER is critical to our ability to engage additional faculty in the GER community as well as institutionalize GER within the earth and environmental sciences. The value of GER to the university community should be communicated in terms of the benefits to students, the individual institutions, and the disciplinary field. Additionally, documenting and adapting lessons learned from partnerships between social scientists and operational scientists can inform the methods in which GER advocates for and informs faculty of research-based instruction.
- The professional societies of NAGT, GSA and AGU have been important in the growth of the Earth science education research community. Efforts should continue to link DBER who attend NAGT, GSA and AGU meetings with DBER working in the atmospheric and oceanic sciences. The AMS has a small group of atmospheric sciences education researchers not connected to the NAGT/GSA/AGU established communities. A presence of NAGT at the AMS Annual Meeting could engage those DBER who do not attend annual meetings of the GSA, AGU, or Earth Educator's Rendezvous
This is a great start! I appreciate very much the nod to the importance of social science linkages, too. This is where many misconceptions also begin. As new MOOCs and colleges create science skepticism courses which really help people develop critical thinking skills, it will be a great help to those new teaching practitioners in geoscience. I want to encourage solid coverage of the role of fresh and salt water in the Earth system, here, too - in particular as it relates to water quality and functional ecosystem services. Groundwater is very poorly understood, yet it is the source for most drinking water in the nation. Many environmental hazards are associated with water, too, involving the complexity of source (glacial melt, precipitation) and sink (evaporation, dam failure, sinkholes). This can impact fundamental aspects of the Earth system and help identify design and process-oriented impactful approaches that well align with NGSS components.
A great resource I did not find was the HHMI Changing Planet: Past, Present, and Future - with some great contributions from Naomi Oreskes on both plate tectonics and climate that relate to science knowledge acquisition. I do look forward to seeing growth of geoscience education researchers coming forward and establishing a mature disciplinary practice. And I look forward to a day when there is more acceptance of the idea that Earth science classes at the high school level are indeed "real" science classes. This initiative launched through these grand challenge ideas hit the mark.
In particular to mention about climate change, perhaps, is that the chemistry may be fairly well understood in terms of infrared radiation and interaction with certain gases. However, we are still working on roles of aerosols, clouds, and impacts and interactions between the atmosphere and soils, biosphere, oceans and glaciers. Most of the "heat" is not just measured in the network of thousands of atmospheric observations near the ground or retrieved by satellite and rawinsonde observations aloft. The global warming is not just in the atmosphere, and there are lots of unanswered questions about how these interactions take place and on different time scales. Challenging, but if we ever hope to have our middle school and high school teachers and students begin to appreciate the complexity here, we have to use as many tools as possible to elevate geoscience in the mind of the education community, including advisors, counselors (at schools) and parents and admissions officers (at college/university level). Finally, good inquiry materials and methodologies should involve a range of options for students across the earth sciences, and even more engagement with NSTA and NARST would help, along with GSA, NAGT, AMS, etc.
I agree with others; this is exciting!