Earth Week x Astrobites 2022: “Bringing Climate to the Classroom” Recap

The first event for our first ever Earth Week x Astrobites series was hosted by Dr. Kathryn Williamson and Dr. Travis Rector where they talked to us about “Bringing Climate to the Classroom.”

The goals of the talk were to illustrate how we, as astronomy educators, can effectively introduce climate change concepts in grade level (elementary to high school) classes and introductory astronomy courses, and how astronomy’s perspective can help our communities grapple with eco-anxiety.

We summarize the event into two parts. First, we discuss how Dr. Kathryn Williamson brings climate education to West Virginia K-12 classrooms and her outreach efforts throughout the state. Then, we describe how Dr. Travis Rector uses astrophysical topics to teach climate change, and his best principles for having climate conversations. 

If you missed the talk, no worries! The event has been recorded (along with closed captioning text). You can also find the biographies of Dr. Williamson and Dr. Rector here and an exclusive interview with them here. Because of the length of this article, we present the transcription of the rich discussion stemming from our Q+A session separately. Additionally, all the resources that were shared during the presentation are compiled at the end of this article. 


Dr. Kathryn Williamson: “Bringing Climate to the Classroom” (slides)

Dr. Williamson is a Teaching Associate Professor at West Virginia University (WVU), Director of the WVU Planetarium, and member of Astronomers for Planet Earth (A4E). 

Dr. Williamson first outlined her guiding principles. Her role as an astronomer allows her to present the big picture perspective and what climate change can mean for us as Earthlings. She emphasizes that often the climate change discourse focuses on individual actions; however, “the real change will come through collective action and organizing.” And finally she talks about her “Aha!” moment when she heard climate scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe say: “The most important thing you can do to fight climate change is to talk about it.”

Dr. Williamson realized she could use her platform as an astronomer and professor to simply talk, and reach beyond the classroom. She is motivated to empower students because it means empowering everyone.

Just say it. Whenever. Wherever. 

One of the biggest takeaways from attendees was Dr. Williamson’s concluding colloquium slide (Figure 1). Her talk was on the Milky Way, but she decided to end with a completely unrelated, but important, statement regarding climate change. “I was so nervous,” she recalled, explaining that the colloquium organizer warned her that it would not go well.

But it did go well. She got a standing ovation from the students.

Figure 1: Slide that Dr. Williamson put at the end of her colloquium to bring attention back to the issue of Climate Change. The text reads: “As a scientist, I need to take a moment to say: Climate change is happening. It is human-caused. We need to act now.” and is followed with the impactful quote “The most important thing you can do to fight climate change is to talk about it” – Katharine Hayhoe. 

Even though it can be nerve-wracking, Dr. Williamson explains that it is useful to start making statements at smaller spaces and then move to larger platforms. These simple actions, like a concluding slide, or printing signs and hanging on office doors can make a BIG impact. 

Classroom Efforts: From K-12 to College 

Dr. Williamson is part of several classroom and outreach efforts that embolden students and educators of all levels. 

K-12 Level

  • Education Grant from NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium
    Dr. Williamson proposed for NASA grant money that focused on K-12 education and creating a public outreach team that is trained to deliver science presentations to students. *NASA has a grant similar to this in every state!* 
  • Short Engagement Activities
    Tactile activities are really useful for teaching children in an accessible way. Tried-and-tested activities include using infrared cameras to examine the greenhouse gas effect with plastics vs. gas, or illustrating ocean acidification with purple cabbage juice as a pH indicator, and more can be found in Dr. Williamson’s slides (page 7). 

University Level

  • 1-Credit Book Club: WVU Climate Conversations
    Utilizing her platform as a professor, she proposed a 1 credit book club where students read books, had formal discussions about climate change and then recorded podcast episodes, or “climate conversations,” that are now streaming on all major podcast platforms! She is currently working towards a second season.  
  • Astronomy 101 Assignment: Have a ‘Climate Conversation’
    Dr. Williamson introduces climate change in an informed way to her introductory astronomy students and provides them with her slides and resources. She gives these tools to the students who are to have the same conversation but with people they have a personal connection with (e.g. family, friends). 

From this one assignment, ~200 students in West Virginia had an informed climate change conversation with their friends and family. 

  • Invite guest speakers from local climate organizations (ex: Citizens Climate Lobby, Sunrise Movement) to speak in class about their work in the climate fight
  • Assignment: Letters to someone “in power” about what they should do with respect to tackling climate change
    Students who chose to mail the letters got positive responses, such as getting an invitation from the WVU President’s office inviting them to make the campus more green. 

Educating Educators: 

One of the biggest endeavors Dr. Williamson has undertaken is the WV Climate Change Teacher Professional Development Project funded by the NASA WV Space Grant Consortium. This initiative empowers physical and social scientists, activists, teachers and students throughout WV “to work together to engage in data-driven climate change investigations” and “highlight, reward, and promote climate change engagement through civic action and public media campaigns.” 

Part of this initiative is the Public Service Announcement (PSA) Competition where students are invited to create a PSA announcement regarding climate change that, if chosen as the winner, can get broadcasted throughout the state, reaching an estimated 40,000 West Virginians.  

“My advice is to just start. Start where you are. Try something. If it does not work, iterate, learn from it, and try again.” 


Dr. Travis Rector: “How astronomers can teach climate change”

Dr. Rector is a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage and chair of American Astronomical Society (AAS) Sustainability Committee, and a member of Astronomers for Planet Earth (A4E). 

Dr. Rector started off by thanking the audience for being there. “It is awesome that you’re here because it shows that you care about it, and that is the first step to taking [climate change] seriously!” (Author’s note: it’s awesome that you are reading this right now, too!) 

How can you use astronomy to teach climate science?

Dr. Rector emphasizes that climate change is something that we can teach and talk about no matter what because there is so much overlap between the science of climate change and the science of astronomy. 

The most common statement from astronomers is “I don’t know the science enough to teach about climate change.”

Dr. Rector’s response: “You do. But first and foremost, we are not trying to be climate scientists. We are being astronomers in class. And with that comes an important perspective.”

The astronomer’s perspective:  

The overview effect is when astronauts go into space and feel a profound shift in their perspective about being on Earth and how small, fragile and precious we are.  Being astronomers, we do not have the physical experience of going into space, but we definitely have this perspective and appreciation for Earth and life. 

Using this as the lens with which we view climate change, Dr. Rector emphasizes that every climate talk needs 3 things: causes, consequences, and solutions.

The solutions are only something that Dr. Rector focused on recently. He found that after teaching about climate change, he was unable to respond to questions such as “Can we do anything about it?” or “Is it too late?” from his students. Since then he has devoted his time to better understanding solutions to give students the opportunity to feel like they are in a place where they can make a difference. 

Figure 2: Screen capture from Dr. Rector’s talk with one of the most profound statements. “Climate change is the MOST IMPORTANT topic in your astronomy class.”

Dr. Rector emphasizes how climate change is the most important thing he teaches in his astronomy (and physics) courses. He wants students to take away that climate change is here and not a distant future. However, the worst consequences are still able to be avoided, but collective action in the next 10 years is critical.

His educational goals entail addressing the top 5 misconceptions:

  1. Natural cycles on Earth are responsible.
  2. It is the Sun.
  3. It is not that bad. 
  4. Scientists are still unsure.
  5. The Earth is actually cooling. 

He wants students to leave the course feeling as though they can address these misconceptions in meaningful, informed ways and can continue to have conversations beyond just the classroom with those who they can most directly influence (i.e. their friends and family).

Dr. Rector emphasized that presenting specific problems caused by or exacerbated by climate change that are as local as possible helps the students relate to the material being taught. For example, he specifically talks about how climate change threatens Alaska’s economy and culture, and at the same time presents solutions that will help the local community. 

“Don’t talk about Polar Bears unless you live in Alaska.”

Present consequences that are relevant to your students.

Pre-teaching the science:

There is tremendous overlap between astronomy and climate science. Dr. Rector recommends teaching the science from an astronomical perspective before illustrating how it can be applied to climate science. 

The overlap between astronomy and climate change:

First, focus on understanding timescales: talk about the millions of years it takes to make stars and planets or how the Universe is nearly 14 billion years old. Then when talking about the current Holocene epoch (the last ~10,000 years of Earth’s history), it is easy to appreciate how short ten thousand years can be, and how changing Earth so drastically in such a short period of time is human-driven. 

Begin by explaining the Solar sunspot cycle, or stellar variability, so you can then explain why it is not the cause for climate change (see Misconception #2). Perform infrared demonstrations and teach spectroscopy and absorption lines, to then explain how greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere can absorb radiation. 

Teaching the geologic history of Earth and its oscillation between interglacial periods and ice ages first will then help illustrate the difference between natural climate cycles and anthropogenic climate change.

Focus on creating a foundational understanding of natural climate change and fundamental astrophysics principles before explaining the current human-induced effects. 

Present solutions. 

It is important to teach several solutions (not just one single solution) and explain how these can be adapted locally to make their lives better. Emphasize positive local news stories (e.g. for his students, Dr. Rector talks about Kodiak, an Alaskan island that is now powered by 100% renewable energy and has improved its economy). Showcasing positives helps mitigate the feeling of helplessness that conversations about climate change can induce.

Teach media literacy. 

Dr. Rector emphasizes that after his courses, the students leave with an astronomer’s perspective on climate change. As one of the most popular science breadth courses needed for general education, Astronomy 101 is the perfect place to teach climate change.

One of the most important skills we can learn as a scientist is to evaluate the credibility of media. Rumors can be easily spread, especially in astronomy (i.e. aliens). Dr. Rector has created labs (feel free to contact him if you want to incorporate these in your own class) where students are required to assess “bogus” astronomy stories by finding reliable counter arguments. Honing these skills translates well to assessing media about climate issues, and enables students to counteract common climate misconceptions. 

Discussion and Summary of Resources

We ended the event with a Q+A session, which is documented separately to avoid saturating this post. Below we list the resources shared during the discussion that we have compiled for everyone to have access to:

Additionally, feel free to contact the speakers themselves using their contact information below:

Dr. Kathryn Williamson (kewilliamson@mail.wvu.edu, @AstroWilliamson)

Dr. Travis Rector (tarector@alaska.edu) If you are interested in the media literacy labs/teaching content, please email Dr. Rector!

Takeaways:

Here is a great twitter thread by Olivia Cooper where she details the main takeaways from the talks. Here is the live-tweet coverage for the event by Sabina Sagynbayeva.

Thank you again to Dr. Williamson and Dr. Rector for their engaging and energizing presentation on how we can harness our unique perspectives as astronomers to fight for our Earth!

Edited by Ishan Mishra and Olivia R. Cooper

Featured Image Credit: Presentation screencaptures – Dr. Kathryn Williamson and Dr. Travis Rector; Logo – Suchitra Narayanan 


This article was written as a part of our Climate Change Series. We’d love to hear what you would like to see from this initiative – if you have ideas, please let us know in this google form.

About Suchitra Narayanan

I am a second-year graduate student at the Institute of Astronomy (UH Mānoa) currently working with the eDisk ALMA Large Program to understand the structure, dynamics, and chemistry of embedded disks (the earliest stages of stellar and planet formation) with Dr. Jonathan Williams. I also have been developing SURPH, an open-source "Software Utility for Relative PHotometry," to be used with the Las Cumbres Observatory, which I use to constrain dust grain size distributions around dipper stars with Dr. Eric Gaidos. My interests include astrochemistry and its role in planetary formation, mainly through chemical kinetics and modeling of exoplanet atmospheres and the ISM. I originally am from Coimbatore but have spent most of my life in the Bay Area. I studied both chemical engineering and astrophysics at University of California, Berkeley. When I’m not science-ing, you can find me at the piano (I’ve been classically trained since I was 4!), in the ocean (I’ve been a competitive swimmer/water polo player, and open water lifeguard for East Bay Regional Park District), or playing with my darling pup, Taco (a mixed border collie rescue).

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