‘Climate emergency’ has been defined as the word of 2019 by the Oxford English Dictionary (BBC Newsround, 2019). Around the world adults and school children are realising that climate change will define our young people’s future. However, many others still haven’t engaged, meaning more needs to be done to provide comprehensive climate change education across the UK.
In Wales we have a unique opportunity as a new curriculum is being developed (Welsh Government, no date). It aims to develop ‘ethical informed citizens’ (Donaldson, 2015) who ‘show their commitment to the sustainability of the planet’ and ask the question, ‘Just because we can, does that mean we should?’ We’re also seeing an emerging approach to education through the STEAM model (BERA, 2016). This method combines science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics to provide more comprehensive and applied learning on a topic.
Within this framework and working in collaboration with Dr Jennifer Rudd (Engineering, Swansea University), Dr Lyle Skains (Digital Fiction Writer, Bangor University) and Dr Ruth Horry (Psychology, Swansea University) we developed the You and CO2 project. This project takes an interdisciplinary approach to teaching about climate change through a combination of chemistry, computer programming, English language and creative writing skills over the course of three workshops.
Workshop 1 engages students with their own carbon footprint. Using chemical modelling, they are able to explore carbon emissions using a hands-on approach. Those emissions are then contextualised for the students as they calculate their own carbon footprint for the first two hours of their day. The students are encouraged to debate simple switches (such as changing to a lower carbon breakfast) with one another and work in groups to reduce their overall carbon footprint. This enables them to think about how schools or councils have to make decisions for large numbers of people.
In the second workshop the students explore a custom-built digital fiction called ‘No World for Tomorrow’. In the story a small group of humans live in a colony on the moon. Every action made by an individual has a direct impact on everyone else. The students make decisions as part of the story which change the ending – a ‘choose your own adventure’ story. They get to explore the various options we currently have for dealing with climate change – burying one’s head in the sand, political action, activism, collaboration with peer groups. The story provides a safe environment where students can engage as much or as little as they want with climate change. The interactive nature of the story also provides hope as students can see how different decisions result in different outcomes.
In workshop 3, the students write their own digital fictions, combining computer programming with creative writing. The students use Twine – an open-source coding language. Using this language, the students are asked to write stories about climate change with in-built decisions. The stories we’ve received have been highly varied – from vegan penguins to plastic pollution, to the social and carbon footprint of mining. You can read a selection of student stories on our website. I highly recommend reading my favourite, which is called ‘Linda and Akachi’s story’.
Through working with a qualitative analysis expert, Dr Helen Ross, we’ve found that the majority of students wrote stories about fighting and acting as individuals. This means that student stories showed the capacity to make individual, behavioural, lifestyle choices. We believe that this means the students felt empowered to make their own decisions about how they personally contribute to climate change. Some students wrote about fighting and acting holistically, where they had shown active engagement with causes of climate change. These stories incorporated both individual and government action and showed that students were capable of thinking beyond the constraints of the You and CO2 programme, which had only focussed on individual actions.
‘Student stories showed the capacity to make individual, behavioural, lifestyle choices. We believe that this means the students felt empowered to make their own decisions about how they personally contribute to climate change.’
We’re now hoping to expand this work into more schools and to use quantitative analysis to ascertain whether students feel empowered to be agents of change personally and as a connected member of society.
- Can STEAM make science education more responsive to change, more relevant to pupils and more in line with the needs of society and the environment?
- Can a STEAM approach to teaching support the aims of the new curriculum for Wales?
- How much of the curriculum should be devoted to climate change education, considering that we live in a time of climate emergency?
BBC Newsround. (2019, November 21). ‘Climate emergency’ is Oxford dictionary’s Word of the Year 2019. https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/50499514
British Educational Research Association [BERA] (2016). Reviewing the potential and challenges of developing STEAM education [webpage]. https://www.bera.ac.uk/project/reviewing-the-potential-and-challenges-of-developing-steam-education-2
Donaldson, G. (2015). Successful futures: Looking at the curriculum and assessment arrangements in Wales. Cardiff: Welsh Government. https://gov.wales/sites/default/files/publications/2018-03/succesful-futures-a-summary-of-professor-graham-donaldsons-report.pdf
Welsh Government. (n/d). Curriculum for Wales 2022. https://gov.wales/curriculum-wales-2022