Biology Students Help Educate the Public on Climate Change and Evolutionary Science Through the Iowa City Science Booster Club

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Katie Valentine, a former ThinkProgress climate editor, is now a freelance contributor based in Toronto
August 29, 2017 - 12:00am

The key to explaining the science behind climate change might start with blowing bubbles into cups.

Or measuring carbon dioxide in a greenhouse, or using Alka-Seltzer tablets to blow up balloons, for that matter. As the increasingly dire warnings about climate change clash with the distortion of science for political ends, one Iowa group has helped cut through the confusion by going back to basics.

The Science Booster Club, a science outreach initiative founded by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), has been active in Iowa City since 2015 and has since begun to spread both within the state and throughout the country. The initiative serves as a way of bringing the science behind climate change and evolution to regular citizens. And, according to its organizers, it’s working.

“In most places in the country, people can tell that something is going on, and they want to talk about it,” said Emily Schoerning, who heads up the Science Booster Club program for NCSE.

The booster club uses volunteers — often scientists, though anyone can get involved — who go to local farmers markets, state fairs, science festivals, city council meetings, and other community events and set up booths with hands-on science experiments. The experiments include activities like the aforementioned bubbles in cups, in which participants blow bubbles through a straw into a cup of water equipped with a pH indicator. As carbon dioxide from the participants’ breath makes the water more acidic, the pH indicator changes the color of the water from blue to green, allowing passers-by to see the basic science behind ocean acidification in real-time.

Volunteers talk participants through each experiment and answer questions about how it relates to current planetary changes, and participants often start to connect the dots themselves.

“People will start to tell me, ‘you know we’ve noticed the rain storms are really intense, it wasn’t like this when I was a kid,’” Schoerning, who has a PhD in microbiology and a background in science communications research, said.

The booster club’s mission is twofold: It aims to expand knowledge of climate and evolutionary science to people across the country while simultaneously creating a friendlier environment for teachers who are interested in educating students about these topics. In recent years, climate education has become a fraught subject in some parts of the country. Three states have blocked the Next Generation Science Standards, guidelines for teaching up-to-date and accurate information on climate change and other science topics. 

Meanwhile, the Heartland Institute has begun sending materials that cast doubt on the science behind climate change to science teachers throughout the country; this year, the conservative think tank plans to send the climate-denying book and DVD to 200,000 American schoolteachers.

Two states — Alabama and Illinois — have passed “academic freedom” resolutions, which ensure that teachers, with the support of the state, can inject controversy into lessons on climate change and evolution if they choose. And this year, a law was signed in Florida that allows any state resident to challenge the science taught in public schools, and potentially get certain teaching materials removed.

Typically, about 10 to 12 of these so-called academic freedom bills as are introduced each year, said Ann Reid, executive director of NCSE.

“Year after year, the vast majority fail,” she said. While the Trump administration has championed anti-scientific beliefs and policies, Reid says that shift it hasn’t impacted the success or failure of measures challenging science education in states; and, because education is such a local issue, she doesn’t expect it will.

The unabashed climate science denial embraced by President Donald Trump and countless officials in his administration is making grassroots programs like the booster club more critical than ever, however. Trump has called climate change “mythical” and “a total con job,” and in the first few months of his presidency alone, he pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, established climate science deniers in key posts across the government, and rolled back 23 environmental rules.

Science-based education on climate change certainly isn’t coming from the top-down in this administration, so community-led initiatives like the booster club may be Americans’ only real chance of expanding their climate knowledge.

Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann said in an email that he thought the program was an “excellent” way of creating more community engagement around climate change. “I’ve long said that the solution to the climate problem is going to come as much from the ground up as from the top down,” Mann said. “The more involved people can get at the community level, the better.”

This community support could impact the number of educators teaching accurate climate science in their classrooms. The booster club is meant to widen the familiarity with and acceptance of climate change in communities, so that teachers feel more comfortable teaching it.

“Teachers are acutely aware of the community and they titrate the way they teach these topics to head off conflict,” Reid said. “The more people accept it, the easier it is for teachers to cover it.”

And most people, even those in politically or religiously conservative areas, have reacted positively to these learning opportunities, Schoerning said. She’s manned booths countless times, and remembers an instance when the booster club booth was across from a well-funded and well-decorated creationist booth at a county fair. Despite the other booth’s flair, she had a line of people waiting to try the science experiments for themselves.

In all, she estimates that the clubs receives one complaint for every 3,000 participants.

The success of the program, according to Schoerning, lies in the approach. Booster club volunteers are committed to ensuring that conversation around climate change remains easygoing, friendly, and non-confrontational.

“When you go into it, you don’t act like you’re doing missionary work; you don’t act like you’re the person who has all the answers,” she said. “Your job is helping people work through some evidence and helping people process their conclusions. I think some of us come with this assumption that everyone is fluent in scientific argumentation, that everyone is used to processing evidence to come to a conclusion.”

That’s not the case for a lot of people, she said. In fact, based on her experience working in Iowa, Schoerning thinks a lot of people don’t distinguish scientific evidence from belief.

“So if they were to talk to me and I was just telling them stuff about climate change, they would see me as presenting beliefs,” Schoerning said. “But if I’m working with them in a physical way, pointing out the evidence, then they can see, oh, this isn’t something she believes — this is something that’s happening, and I can hold a small part of it in my hands.”

Scientists and environmentalists have long struggled to find ways to get more Americans to care about climate change and to support policies that address it. One of their key takeaways is that having scientists simply deliver more and more facts about climate change usually doesn’t help, but that building trust and respect with people makes delivering scientific messages more effective. That’s what the booster clubs aim to do.

“A lot of the traditional approach to science education is, ‘how do we make people care about this?’” Schoerning said. “What I’ve found through my work and through my research is that it’s more effective if the first step you take is to figure out how I can tell the person that I care about them.”

There are dozens of volunteers and three paid employees working on the booster clubs in Iowa, and the clubs have so far spread to 8 other states. Scientists, teachers, grad students, or anyone else who is interested in starting a booster club in their state can contact NCSE and receive a science education kit that has everything they need to put on a science experiment in their communities — a do-it-yourself model Schoerning likens to the “Blue Apron of hands-on science.”

Overall, the booster clubs have given Schoerning the sense that, in spite of the current political climate surrounding climate change, America is going to be OK. “There’s a lot of reasons to feel a lack of hope, when you look at the news, but when you work with the American people there’s a lot of hope there,” she said. “We have a lot of potential.”


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