If you are reading this journal, then it is likely that you are very aware that the Gulf of Maine is facing some serious challenges, and that many of them are a consequence of global warming. The Gulf is warming faster than 99% of the world’s oceans, sea level is rising, and the waters are becoming more acidic. And all of this is impacting ocean life and our coastal communities.
If you are a young person hearing about the predicted effects of climate change, you are probably very concerned about what your life will be like in a warmer future. You may even be experiencing anxiety or depression related to these concerns. This is what happened to Greta Thunberg, a young teenager from Sweden, who turned her concerns about climate change into action. In August of 2018, she began a school strike, sitting all alone in front of parliament with her protest sign. Little did she know that she would inspire a movement among young people, who have now held school climate strikes on every continent. And as I write this, Greta is sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to attend the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York City this September.
I applaud these young people for speaking their minds and doing what they can to get adults to pay
attention to them and their concerns. After all, they will be dealing with the impacts long after many of the adults who contributed to the problem are gone. But I have also asked myself why are they so willing to skip school to take action for a safe climate future? Isn’t school an important place to be, to learn how to create a better future? My guess is that students are not worried about missing school, because they do not see what they are learning in school as relevant to their lives.
In this essay I propose an approach to public education that would better engage students and also prepare them to address the issues we face because of the changing climate. First, I explore what students need to know to be able to tackle real-world problems such as climate change, and I consider how this could provide a framework for teaching and learning. Then I suggest the type of curriculum that could engage students and motivate them to learn.
A better framework for teaching and learning
The traditional approach to education familiar to most of us is to have students take courses across a variety of disciplines – biology, mathematics, English, history, etc. – and to gain knowledge specific to each of these disciplines. Certainly, knowledge in these areas (and others) provides an important foundation for problem solving. But something critical is missing. In the real world, problems and their solutions are not restricted to a single discipline, they require connecting many disciplines and learning how to integrate these different forms of knowledge. The issues we face all have a scientific context as well as a social, legal, political, economic, and technological context. Students must learn to approach problems using an interdisciplinary framework if they want to understand the issues and generate solutions to complex problems. Interdisciplinarity is defined as “a knowledge view and curriculum approach that consciously applies methodology and language from more than one discipline to examine a central theme, issue, problem, topic or experience” (Jacobs 1989).
The call for an interdisciplinary approach to learning is not new. Jacobs (1989) made the case for
interdisciplinary education more than thirty years ago. “It is no wonder that many secondary students complain that school is irrelevant to the larger world,” she wrote. “In real life we encounter problems and situations, gather data from all of our resources, and generate solutions. The fragmented school day does not reflect this reality.” But if we look at our current public-school curriculum for the middle and high school years, it is still structured around separate subjects.
And so how should educators approach the issue of climate change? Although many believe that science and technology hold the answers to the climate crisis, in fact, scientists themselves are saying that an understanding of science itself is not enough. Because human and natural systems are so intricately linked, we need to use an interdisciplinary approach to understand the connections among them. It is only by incorporating many disciplines that we will be able to make progress toward a more sustainable world (Clark and Dickson 2003, Liu et al. 2007).
A curriculum to engage and motivate students
Adopting an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning is a critical piece to preparing students to address the complex problems they will face after graduation. But to make school more relevant, we need to connect what students learn to a place that they care about. This is especially true when we are teaching about climate change, which students see as an overwhelmingly large problem that is global in scale and therefore not something they can really do anything about. When students can see the impacts of climate change in their own communities, they will take notice. And at this smaller scale, they can learn how to engage with others to take actions that will result in positive change. Ultimately, by connecting with issues at the local level, students will come to understand the problems and potential solutions, even at larger scales.
What I am talking about here is known as place- or community-based education. It is a philosophy of teaching that has been described best by Gregory Smith and David Sobel in their book, Place- and Community-Based Education in Schools (2014).
Place-based education is the process of using the local community and environment as a starting point to teach concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and other subjects across the curriculum. Emphasizing hands-on, real-world learning experiences, this approach to education increases academic achievement, helps students develop stronger ties to their community, enhances students’ appreciation for the natural world, and creates a heightened commitment to serving as active, contributing citizens.
An important piece of this approach is that students collaborate with community partners. Connecting with people in the community, including those who work in government, nonprofit organizations, and local businesses, as well as local citizens, is essential for students as they gather information that is relevant to the problem or topic they are addressing. Being able to seek out and consider multiple perspectives, and to incorporate those diverse perspectives into possible solutions, are essential pieces of what students need to learn. Community-based education also inherently teaches skills in communication and collaboration.
Community-based stewardship – The Gulf of Maine Field Studies course
The Gulf of Maine Institute has taken an approach to education that they call community-based stewardship. As explained on their website (www.gulfofmaineinstitute.org), this approach emphasizes learning to steward through:
1. Immersion in community-rooted, structured, experiences that emphasize unique biota, history, culture, economy, literature, and art of a specific place.
2. Civic engagement, the act(s) of doing something concrete and beneficial to improve, understand, remedy, protect and promote a healthy ecosystem.
3. Connecting local community efforts to the larger bioregion through acting locally while thinking bioregionally.
I am involved in a pilot project that applies this approach through the creation of a new, interdisciplinary course taught at the high school level. The course focuses on ecological and social aspects of the Gulf of Maine, the impacts of climate change on the Gulf, as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. It approaches these topics by having students engage in a specific climate change-related problem in their own community. The specific problem addressed by the class will change over time, as there are plenty of problems to choose from. But the point is that students connect what they are learning about the Gulf of Maine with an issue that is local, and they gain first-hand experience working to find solutions to a climate-related problem.
During the first year of the course, students worked on a climate change mitigation problem. In the town’s harbor is Goat Island, which is home to an historic lighthouse, and is owned by a local conservation organization, the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust. The electricity the island needs is supplied by an underground cable from the mainland, but this cable is showing signs of wear. The project was to explore whether wind, tidal or solar power were viable options to power the island and to get it off the grid. The students gathered on-site data to see if any of these alternative energy options could provide the needed electricity. But they also had to explore whether the community would be accepting of any of these options, so they conducted interviews and gathered survey data in an effort to understand stakeholders’ perspectives.
Student response to the course so far has been positive. We have begun collecting qualitative and quantitative data to gauge their experience and assess their learning. One tool we are using is the Research on Integrated Science Curricula (RISC) survey, which was developed by researchers at Grinnell College to investigate interdisciplinary student learning.
Our year 1 data show students reporting large learning gains in several areas. On the post-course survey, students are asked to "rate the gains you may have made as a result of taking this course" on a 5-point scale, where 1 = no or very small gain to 5 = very large gain. Students in the Gulf of Maine course reported making the largest gains in:
Learning to ask “big questions” that implicate more than one discipline in a solution
Collecting and analyzing data
Learning that disciplines may approach problems in different and sometimes conflicting ways
Presenting intellectual work in posters and written papers or reports
These results are encouraging, and next year we plan to also give the RISC survey to students who are enrolled in traditional science courses, so that we can compare groups.
Getting this new course offered at a public high school was not easy. It took finding a passionate teacher, a supportive principal, and willing community partners to make it work. But if we want students who are prepared to engage in creating solutions to complex issues like climate change, we need to include more courses like these in the middle and high school years. Perhaps then young people will look to their schools to help them acquire the knowledge, learn the skills and make the connections that will help them to be successful in their quest for a safe climate future.
Clark W.C., Dickson N.M. 2003. Sustainability science: the emerging research program. PNAS 100:8059–8061. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1231333100
Jacobs, H.H. 1989. Interdisciplinary curriculum: Design and implementation. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1250 N. Pitt Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.
Liu J., Dietz T., Carpenter S.R. et al. 2007. Complexity of coupled human and natural systems. Science 317:1513–1516. doi: 10.1126/science.1144004
Smith, G.A. and Sobel, D. 2014. Place-and community-based education in schools. Routledge, NY, NY.
Pam Morgan’s primary research interest is in the conservation and ecology of wetlands, and she enjoys collaborating with others across multiple disciplines in her work. She teaches a variety of courses for the Environmental Studies Department at the University of New England, including Plant Systematics, Wetland Conservation and Ecology, Wetland Restoration, Ecological Monitoring, Conservation and Preservation, and Women and the Environment. She has a master's degree in Botany from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. in Natural Resources from the University of New Hampshire.