Climate change, STEM and the next generation

Traditionally, STEM subjects have been regarded by some students as slightly more abstracted from day to day life when compared to humanities-based subjects. However, with the growing coverage surrounding climate change, younger generations are rapidly becoming aware of the relevance STEM subjects hold in everyday life, writes Jane Dowden from the British Science Association

The climate crisis has brought science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects to the fore amongst younger generations – with millions of young people marching globally, asking the world to listen to Greta Thunberg and “unite behind the science”. As a result, we are seeing young people becoming increasingly aware of climate related issues.
Traditionally, STEM subjects have been regarded by some students as slightly more abstracted from day to day life when compared to humanities-based subjects. However, with the growing coverage surrounding climate change and its impending danger, younger generations are rapidly becoming aware of the relevance STEM subjects hold in everyday life – and are engaging with it more than they perhaps would have before. This is unsurprising and vital, given the daunting predictions that are being made about their futures.
Certainly, the climate crisis is engaging a wider range of students in science than just those that have a natural inclination towards the subject. Given that science will be at the heart of any solution to the damaging effects of climate change, this is a very positive step and should be built on further by schools and educators, and there are a variety of ways this can happen.

Climate on the curriculum

The demand for greater awareness in climate science has begun to reach the attention of governments globally. Most recently, the New Zealand government has decided that it will be adding climate change to their curriculum. This is a positive step in several ways. Firstly, the subject is quite overwhelming, and this allows educators to talk through students’ fears surrounding the topic – whilst ensuring that the next generation are suitably aware of the implications that the climate crisis brings with it.
Secondly, it can harness the power of this renewed awareness to create positive change. Students are undeniably aware of the urgency of climate issues, but by teaching it in schools, students can feel empowered with the knowledge to make changes rather than becoming bystanders of the impending dangers.
Teachers have the power to act now, with climate change reportedly inducing anxiety in young people, schools should be harnessing STEM education to help alleviate these fears. Science educators can engage students in climate relevant science lessons. Through encouraging further awareness of the underlying climate issues, educators can ensure that the next generation are equipped with the information they need to tackle the problems – and inspire young people to begin a discussion on how to build solutions to these. It is important to always shape these discussions in a way that highlights how we can all can play a fundamental role in preventing the climate catastrophe from escalating. This way, students can feel greater control over the issues and their futures.

Project based learning

At the British Science Association, we are firm believers in project-based learning (PBL) as a method of encouraging young people into STEM learning – and have created PBL based sustainable solutions projects as a part of our CREST Awards scheme. PBL is designed for creating solutions to real world problems and naturally lends itself to STEM and interdisciplinary learning. It also incorporates both academic and practical learning, allowing for a range of students to be catered for – whatever their learning preference. Moreover, it encourages teamwork, giving students the opportunity to work together in diverse thinking groups. This collaboration helps to highlight how varied perspectives are integral to creating innovative solutions.
Projects can be centred around the local community by identifying what the key climate issues in the area are and what sort of initiatives could help tackle these problems. Concentrating on addressing problems locally, allows students to break the larger problem of climate change down to something manageable, otherwise it can easily become an overwhelming topic. Furthermore, it allows for greater personalisation; through creating a solution to a problem faced by their own community students can truly understand and appreciate the impact and importance of their work. This practical and personalised approach to STEM subjects can help sustain engagement in the subject and highlight the importance of developing these skills whether or not they wish to follow a STEM related career path.  
Although many students will have some understanding of climate change and its causes, it is still vital to get them thinking about the context of the project. You could start by asking students what they already know about climate change, before helping them to organise their thoughts, for example using headings like Causes, Impact and Solutions. Support them to develop their knowledge further through independent research or class activities. News articles can be a great way to trigger discussion and further investigation. Encourage students to look behind the headlines and see what evidence is used to back up claims.

Next, ask students to consider their local community; how it contributes to climate change and how their local area might be affected. Then build on this by explaining any further examples of what the local community does to contribute to climate change, and what impact climate change is having or might potentially have on the local community. This gives students a more personal understanding of environmental problems and helps them comprehend why it is so important to develop the skills to tackle them. Ask your class what they think isn’t being done to tackle the problem that ought to be.

To help students get their ideas started, try using group brainstorming. This can help build confidence and brings together different opinions and ideas. Young people can build on each other’s ideas and recognise the need to take into account different perspectives. Through coming up with their own solutions, students can develop a greater sense of ownership over their project which will help to further enrich their engagement.

The climate crisis will affect the youngest generations more than any other, so it makes sense that it induces engagement with science learning. However, it is important that schools harness that engagement for something positive, as they will be the generation in charge of tackling the fallout from climate change. As PBL naturally engages a wider range of learners it is a good place to start and can help demonstrate that diverse ideas and thinking is exactly what is needed to tackle a problem at this scale.

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