Research News

Columbia Climate Center NSF Grant

2010-10-21

In September, the Earth Institute’s Columbia Climate Center began work underwritten by a two-year National Science Foundation planning grant to develop a new Climate Change Education partnership between education experts, climate scientists, and both formal and informal education practitioners such as museum educators. The two-year grant will be a partnership between Columbia University, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the International Arctic Research Center and the American Museum of Natural History. The principal investigator on the grant is Stephanie Pfirman, chair of Barnard’s Department of Environmental Science and a scientist at the Climate Center. Pfirman’s work focuses on environmental changes in the Arctic as well as undergraduate education and public outreach. The Columbia Climate Center is the lead entity among these partnering institutions.

NSF’s overall goal with this long-term effort is to establish a coordinated national network of regionally- or thematically-based partnerships devoted to increasing the adoption of effective, high quality educational programs and resources related to the science of climate change and its impacts. Using the rapid climate change presently occurring in polar regions, especially the Arctic, the Polar Learning and Responding Climate Partnership (POLAR) will explore new approaches to climate change education that are effective and fun, and therefore easy to disseminate through classrooms, as well as in homes, museums and work environments. “We need to find ways help people navigate the challenges posed by climate change,” said Pfirman. According to Mary-Elena Carr, associate director of the Climate Center, “Doom and gloom is not going to motivate anyone. It is more important to educate people so that they can come up with solutions.”

The grant is targeted at adult learners including undergraduates, teachers and adults in families who are learning in informal settings because, according to Pfirman, “Adults are making choices now that will affect our ability to mitigate and adapt to future warming.” Museums were chosen because of their potential to reach a large audience of informal learners, as evidenced by the success of the Polar Weekend program held at the American Museum of Natural History associated with the International Polar Year. An important learning tool that will be explored as part of the project is games, both computer games and traditional board games, together with other interactive tools because they represent active learning. They also allow researchers to track the way people both engage with and learn new information, and how they make decisions when confronted with that information.

The focus will be on resources that help adult learners understand the mechanisms and impacts of climate change, and how they can respond with sustainable solutions. The researchers will compile an inventory of existing resources as part of the work underwritten by this grant. They will also identify a group of stakeholders, including native Arctic communities, state and federal agencies, the financial sector, and other decision makers. Over the next two years there will be periodic check-ins with these stakeholders through telephone and social networks as well as in workshops in which the stakeholders will engage with the researchers concerning their needs and questions regarding problems related to climate change. Throughout the grant period, the POLAR group will develop a strategic plan for Phase II of the project, which will focus on transforming the way people think about climate science—shifting it, according to their proposal, “from a contentious issue to a personal and professional challenge.”