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July 15, 2013

Attracting more students to STEM by teaching climate change

If educators hope to increase and maintain enrollment in the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and math – then they must make sure their courses feature hands-on activities that are relevant to the student’s world.

In a paper published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, a team of Michigan State University researchers argues that teaching classes about global climate change provides one potential solution.

“We believe that teaching the science of climate change to students represents a golden opportunity to improve their knowledge and understanding of the diverse array of issues encompassed by climate change,” said lead author Aaron McCright of MSU’s Lyman Briggs College.

“It also promotes interdisciplinary process skills that are paramount to solving 21 century problems.”

Climate change is a complicated issue, McCright said, one that lends itself well to interdisciplinary education. Core ideas from areas such as biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and the social sciences are all necessary to fully understand it.

“In a perfect world, it would be nice to have an environmental science course co-taught by a biologist, a physicist and a chemist,” he said. “Also, in that course, it would be nice to have students from a wide range of majors. Logistically speaking, however, that can be challenging.”

McCright and his co-authors also write that it is important that non-science students are educated in the science of climate change as well.

“Perhaps even more important is the science education of non-STEM majors, who also will need to make informed decisions about climate change as citizen stakeholders,” he said.

In the paper, the authors offer three examples of climate change-related STEM education projects that are interdisciplinary in nature:

  • The “hockey stick project” in which students work in groups to teach their classmates about a topic related to it. The hockey stick graph is a visual that illustrates how global warming has dramatically increased over the last 100 years.
  • “Climate change week” in which first- and second-year college students sit in on a variety of STEM courses to learn about the relevance of several disciplines for understanding climate change.
  • “Climate change semester or year” in which a long-term course is team-taught by instructors from many disciplines.

Other authors included Brian O’Shea, Ryan Sweeder, Gerald Urquhart and Aklilu Zeleke, all of Lyman Briggs College.


By: Tom Oswald

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