11 January 2013
A foray into teaching – and a request for advice!
Posted by Jessica Ball
This semester, as part of an attempt to keep myself funded through the end of my PhD (always an uphill battle), I’m going to be teaching a smallish section of our introductory environmental science course. And the main topic is…deep breath…climate change! Not being an expert on climate change, this has me perusing background information to get ready for the content, but also looking at techniques for teaching controversial environmental topics. And I’m looking for help!
Here’s the deal: I’m sort of team-teaching with our paleoclimate professor: he gets the 300-person section, I get the 70-person section, and we share prep responsibilities for the material and labs. I’m not hugely concerned with the subject matter, since we’ll be concentrating very heavily on the scientific background necessary to understand how climate change affects Earth systems – atmospheric structure, weather vs. climate, natural hazards that can result from rising temperatures and sea levels, the effects on marine ecology, etc. etc. And I’m not worried about class size, since 70 people is a completely manageable group when you compare it to a giant lecture hall full of people whose names you might not ever learn. And I’m looking forward to the chance to hone my lecturing skills with a larger group than I worked with last semester, and outside of a lab setting.
But what I’m just the teensiest bit anxious about is how students are going to react to the subject matter, because the topic of climate change has been so politicized that it’s absurd to expect that somebody isn’t going to have a passionate reaction to what I’m going to be talking about. That’s pretty much the reason I don’t write about climate change here – in addition to the fact that lots of other people do a much better job than I could, I just don’t have the time to deal with the inevitable drama.
While trying to pull together material for classroom activities, I came across the Carleton SERC’s “Teaching Environmental Issues and the Affective Domain” article, which got me thinking about how I can approach my new teaching duties. Here’s a summary of the advice the article gives:
- Start teaching objectively and with data – set the stage for later discussions that could deal with personal/political responses.
- Use active learning techniques – engage the students so they don’t feel like they’re just being talked at about topics they may feel defensive about.
- Use controversial or ambiguous topics judiciously, but as ways to encourage critical thinking skills and getting students to learn how to evaluate their sources of information for credibility and the strength of their arguments.
- Don’t make everything depressing – talk about successes in environmental areas.
- Clearly define how you will approach the topics you teach and what your goals are.
- Don’t preach at your students (particularly not if your goal is to present the science rather than political or activist issues).
I think these are a great thing for me to keep in mind, and a good place to start, but bullet points do not a pedagogy make. What I want to know is, what experiences have you – my more experienced readers – had with teaching controversial issues? Or, if you’ve been in a class where they were being discussed, what approaches worked well for you as a student – and what didn’t? I’m looking for any kind of advice you can offer – discussion strategies, assignments that helped you/your students understand the material better, ways to mediate disputes (if they came up), what to do if a student publicly challenges you, and so on.
As a graduate student, I’m always (at least initially) a bit uncomfortable in a teaching position because I’m really not that much older than the students I’m in charge of (and in a few rare cases they’re older than me!) It can be hard for a grad student to establish their authority with a class in a normal situation, and in a situation where I know people are likely to hold very strong opinions on topics, I want to be sure that I present myself as both informed and impartial. Hopefully the students who have signed up for the class have chosen to take it because they’re at least vaguely interested in the topic, but I do want to be prepared if any come in with strong preconceived ideas about it. (The professor I am teaching with also teaches an upper-level climate course, so I’ll definitely be tapping him for advice, but it would be great to have outside input as well!)
First of all, I have found most traditional aged students do not consider climate change a controversy. They may not understand the science, but they do not typically challenge me. Also, I would doubt you would get students adamately opposed to the idea of climate change enrolled in your class.
But in teaching about other controversial issues, my main piece of advice is to respect the student, and demand that they respect your expertise. If they are firmly beholden to their world view, you will not change it. So the discussion should not be about how to “change their opinion”. Instead focus on how science works, and pointing out the reasons the scientific community has accepted evidence of anthropogenic based warming. If you can convince the student that the science is logical, you will have succeeded
I’m hoping that this will be the case – I’m teaching the late class, which tends to attract more of the students who have work/family obligations during the day, and with any luck this will be accompanied by a different level of maturity about controversial topics than what might come up in the larger class.
When I teach Climatology, I do not consider any controversy beyond the determination of how much of a quantifiable effect that AGW has on the global climate system. There is no controversy as to whether AGW exists, it does amongst the scientific community, and that’s who I represent when teaching at a university.
All that the misinformation & disinformation has produced so far are a bunch of ill-conceived red herrings that are easily shot down. Address them if they come up, and remind them that they are being evaluated based on material derived from scientific merit. If they have scientific evidence of their point of view, they can provide references to the peer-reviewed material to you.
Sounds like what we’re planning on doing! I’ve already prepared a list of resources to use just in case any arguments do come up, but with any luck we can just focus on the science side of things.
This is a complex enough topic that I’m writing an independent post on it. I have some experience- not a lot, but some- with controversial issues in a very poor, very red (in current political jargon) rural community, on topics like evolution, environmental issues, and yes, climate change. It’s more touchy in public schools than in university, but the potential is there. I think the best way to put it in quick terms is that it’s not something to “worry” about, but it’s smart to be aware of the problem and thinking about ways to avoid it.
I’ll post the link when I finish, but I don’t think that’ll be until tomorrow.
Two thoughts, not necessarily related.
First, particularly relevant to AGW, clearly separate science from policy. Although science should logically inform policy decisions, I always make it clear to my students that science results are to be evaluated on their own merits and do not dictate any policy decisions. Then, when discussing what to do about the science (presuming you choose to go there at all), make sure to discuss a range of policy alternatives that are informed by the science, but not necessarily dictated by it. For example, doing nothing (or rather continuing to do what we’re presently doing) IS a policy option, albeit with some potentially negative outcomes. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is another, but it clearly economic and societal impacts that are probably beyond the scope of a scientific discussion that must be considered. A third possibility you might suggest is a policy that stresses removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere (with or without modifying greenhouse gas output) – this last one is essentially a geoengineering strategy and there are many ways of implementing it (and potentially many more uncertainties that it introduces). Anyhow, that’s how I approach a discussion of AGW.
My second suggestion is both something of a throwback and yet something I wish many more educators would take advantage of: read Dale Carnegie’s classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (http://www.audible.com/pd/ref=sr_1_1?asin=B002V5BV96&qid=1357951500&sr=1-1). I can’t stress enough how much science communicators could learn from this time tested book and the strategies laid out therein.
Opening day remarks:
“Greetings ladies and gentlemen, my name is Jessica Ball and I’m here to conduct this class on climate change. This class on climate change will cover the scientific foundation of climate change and we’ll be learning all about how one goes about discovering climate change, quantifying climate change, understanding climate change, and extrapolating climate change.
“Please be advised that this is NOT a class on PERSUADING anyone as to the EXISTENCE of climate change. For those who might wish to debate whether or not climate change is a real phenomenon, I’m sure there are many wonderful forums that can be found for that purpose and I’ll leave it as an exercise for the student to find them if they feel so inclined.
“In this class, climate change, and its scientific underpinnings, are considered, as they should be, as well beyond any reasonable question as to whether they exist in the first place or not.
“Is that clear?
“Now, are there any here with us today who believe climate change to be fictitious, or to any degree unproven?”
Smattering of hands going up
“Very well, it’s my pleasure to make your acquaintance. Please be advised that if you expect me to try to change your mind in this matter, you will be sorely disappointed.
“I am proceeding from a firm foundation of factual evidence, shall be following the discipline as reason and common sense dictate, and I shall brook no contradictory disruptions from anyone in this room. There is an awful lot of material to cover in a too-short period of time, and if any of you think that I’ll be diverting precious minutes of lecture time toward attempting to change your belief system, you will discover that nothing of the kind will occur. We will cover the material as it is intended to be covered, and anyone who seeks to subvert that process will quickly discover that such behavior will not be tolerated to the least extent in my classroom.
“If you have personal problems in accepting the validity of climate change, it is of no concern to me, you really do not belong here in the first place, and perhaps you might want to look into signing up for a different class while there’s still time to do so.
“I advise you not test me in this matter, as you do so at your own peril as a continued member of this class. Those of us who are here to learn are here to learn, and anyone who sets themselves up as an impediment to that learning will be dealt with quickly and substantially.
“Thank you for your attention, now let us get on with the task at hand.”
Be sure and check with the administration as to your discretionary power to deal with disruptors in class. If your administration will not, or can not, back you up, you might be teaching at the wrong institution and all of the preceding becomes null and void.
Presuming that the administration has your back, you are now in full control of the situation.
Having put a good scare into them, you then proceed to deal with them using a velvet glove, and being the reasonable person you are, you will cut them a bit more slack than you have given them to believe.
But you NEVER play defense. Ever. You never explain yourself, you never justify yourself, and you never evidence the least little fissure in the exterior surface of things.
And, as with all groups, there’s going to be at least one knot-head who will challenge your authority.
Off comes the velvet glove and the iron fist which was concealed within deals with the problem swiftly and efficiently.
Everyone else in the lecture hall takes note, peace is restored, and a fine semester is had by one and all.
Wow, a script and everything! That’s an interesting approach; I had already decided to talk about why we’re focusing on the science rather than any ‘debates’ or policy (until later in the semester), but I hadn’t thought about how I was going to go about it in such detail.
I can only hope that some small particle of what I have offered might be of the slightest use. If it’s not too much to ask, perhaps, could you enlighten us all once the semester is over, as to how it went on the “controversial” end of things? Both things that went well and things that went otherwise. You will have gained insight that we might all make good use of, and if you could share a bit of it with us, that would be wonderful. Do, oh please, keep up the good work, for you are a worthy resource.
Teaching Controversial Topics 101: http://outsidetheinterzone.blogspot.com/2013/01/teaching-controversial-topics-101.html
Thanks for the thoughts, Lockwood! That was a great post and I’m definitely going to keep your advice in mind when I start lecturing this week.
During my long period of “I’ll adjunct anything to pay the bills” I ended up teaching a class just on climate change, aimed at students with no science background. I came up with some exercises, but one of the things I did that I liked the most was include regular discussions of readings. I based this off of a JGE article I read by Kevin Theissen (ref at the end). I found articles that weren’t long scientific papers, but that were kind of entry level science papers. I especially liked this because one of the biggest challenges teaching climate change is that it is something that almost everyone has pre-conceived ideas about, so you never know what arguments, or incorrect assumptions people come in with. Our discussions were excellent for this, because making everyone talk (and submit discussion questions) really helped me see what issues they got, and which they just didn’t. I am planning a blog post with more about my exercises and readings, but if you email me I’d love to share.
Theissen, K.M., 2008, The Earth’s Record of Climate: A Focused-topic Introductory Course: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 56, no. 4, p. 342–353.
Thanks for the idea! I was thinking of pulling in current events stuff for reading, but looking for short scientific papers to read would also be great for the students (I love giving people primary source material), and it will help me develop my knowledge as well. Thanks for the article link – looks like a useful read, and I’ll be looking forward to your post about it as well.
It’s a bit like teaching evolution. I started out telling students I was not there to tell them what to believe. Believe anything you want. I’m here to present the prevailing scientific approach and conclusions.
I’d also explain the inherent limitations of science when studying global climate. The trouble with studying AGW is we don’t have a control group. We can’t run experiments like we can with a new kind of antibiotic on innoculated petri dishes. To get the statistics right we’d need about 8 Earths with humans doing what we’ve done and another 8 Earths without us.
That’s what it will take, maybe, to convince the skeptics.
You need to maintain integrity. This means treating the subject rather a schools (in the UK where I live) treat religion. You cannot expect to convert anyone but you can deliver all the sides to the question. Yes discuss the known concerns of CO2 equivalent pollution of the planet and the models that show very serious outcomes but do recognise that water vapour has by far the largest effect on warming and this cannot be predicted. Remember to mention all the theories that were earlier dismissed – like the possible effect of the sun, absorbtion by the sea and cosmic radiation – only for them to be later discovered to be important. Mention too how these models compare with the current reality and why the more dire forecasts haven’t (yet!!) materialised. Above all mention that if the world adopted China’s recent policy of population control all anthropomorphic warming could be sorted in one generation! Good Luck
First of all, I don’t believe that whether or not climate change is real is as controversial as it was. There is a plethora of data out there now to support global warming and there is a general acceptance now among the more informed public—except of course from the Governor of my fine state—Texas….LOL. We don’t take him to serious though.
Where the controversy still exists is in defining the major cause of climate change and you would be surprised on just how controversial this is. During my tenure as the President of the American Association of Petroleum Geologist, Division of Environmental Geoscientists we were tasked with putting together an Ad Hoc Committee to put out an AAPG “Policy Statement” and to put together seminars, workshops and sessions on the subject. Now let me say this……as a part of a group of 30,000 + highly educated and highly trained geoscientists….including some of the top geologists in the world….there should have been no singular group anywhere better tailored to answer some of these questions….right? Well….I have been around a while and I find it hard to get four geologists together and to agree on almost any geological interpretation over a large number of beers. That plus the fact that there was not a whole lot of incentive for the largest organization of oil and gas geologists to find that the burning of fossil fuels has any contribution to global warming….LOL. After about a year and half of putting of forums, seminars, etc., about global warming, it got so contentious and even ugly, that we totally abandoned our efforts and the AAPG finally issued an official statement that the subject of global warming was not within the “realm” of the purposes of the organization and that the determination of the reality and causes of global warming should best be left up to Climate Scientists, Oceanographers, and Meteorologists…..LOL. In my view it was not one of the shining eras in AAPG history and a reflection of just how contentious it got.
I guess my point here is that if you can’t even gain a congenial consensus of the reality and causes of global warming and climate change amongst some of the top geoscients in the world…..I wouldn’t sweat to much about a group of undergraduate students. There is a lot of good science and data supporting climate change. There are also a lot of “theoretical” causes that can be discussed i.e, periodic tilting of the earh’s orbital axis, sunspot activity, vulcanism (which should be right up your alley….I acutally wrote a paper about the subject…relating periods glacial activity to widespread eras of vulcanism), and of course the more widely discussed theory of the burning of fossil fuels. The most important thing is to discuss all the possible causes….and be objective and open minded about it. Let the students openly discuss and come to their own conclusions.
And of course have fun doing it….this should be a fun class to teach.
[…] accepting the climate change theme (or at least, none that made noise about it), which kind of made that post I wrote a while back slightly moot. I’m very happy to have had the experience of teaching an intro course, […]