Office of the President

Dr. Patrick T. Harker is the 26th president of the University of Delaware. He also serves as professor of business administration in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics and professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering.

MADE-CLEAR Climate Change Summit
University of Maryland University College
September 19, 2011

I’m thrilled to be a part of this distinguished panel, and to talk about Delaware’s efforts with regard to preparing educators to teach climate change. Clearly, universities have many different pieces of this effort, and maybe it’s integrating them that signals our biggest challenge.

Climate Change in Higher Education
It’s probably not surprising that most of UD’s climate change coursework occurs in our College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment: 39 courses in the college include “climate” in the course
description—a full quarter of the classes taught. In at least half-of-dozen, we’re educating pre-service or in-service K–12 teachers.

Several majors have climate components: geology, marine science, marine policy, environmental science, environmental studies, oceanography, ocean engineering, geography—and we’re on schedule to offer a PhD in climatology next fall.

We’re experimenting now with bringing climate courses down to the freshman and sophomore level, when many students are still generalists. For instance, we’re piloting a junior-level course in climate and climate change as a sophomore offering. Educating generalists is important because one of our most critical jobs is preparing the population at large—as citizens, voters, and taxpayers—to think critically about climate change issues and impact. Going forward, I think we’ll see more need for specialized courses covering a spectrum of majors, as more and more companies and agencies begin making plans for the implications of climate change.

UD’s high-profile research portfolio in sustainable energy—solar, wind, V2G—gives us a natural opportunity to take a leadership role in climate change education, and to do so across constituencies: college students, K–12 students, Delaware residents, a growing workforce employed in the clean-energy sector.

Climate Change in Teacher Preparation
In terms of preparing K–12 teachers to teach climate change, we’re taking a holistic view, finding out what freshmen elementary education majors know about climate and how it changes over time. We’ve found their understanding coming into UD is similar to the general population (which is to say, limited). There’s little knowledge around the science of climate change and the Earth’s cycles that influence it—the carbon cycle, the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle—and the feedback loops within these cycles.

It’s also difficult for students to conceive the huge scales of time and space that provide the context for climate change discussions. Climate change is scientifically complex stuff, and that’s a challenge. So we’re following these students to see how their content and pedagogical knowledge develops—through their undergraduate education and into the K–12 classroom.

We find we have an opportunity to maximize our engagement when student-teaching begins, and prospective teachers have that first wholly immersive school experience. At this critical stage, they tend to see why the science of climate change is so important; how much they’ll need to blend content and pedagogy to make an effective lesson plan; how much content can inform pedagogy.

As we continue following them, we see that 3–4 years into their teaching careers—when the dust has settled and the classroom is little less scary—there’s an opportunity for influential professional development around climate change. At that point, they’re eager to work with what they’re actually teaching and what they have to teach, to inject some creativity into prescriptive standards.

I cited the scientifically complex nature of climate change as a challenge. But a bigger one is a college curriculum that isn’t as interdisciplinary as it could and should be. We’re further along in concept than we are in practice. Climate change virtually defines “interdisciplinary,” and content courses—especially introductory courses: biology, chemistry, physics—aren’t currently set up to handle that very well.

We’re still rather siloed, and that’s the one thing climate change education can’t abide. We need scientists, policy educators, and others to team on courses or parts of courses that bring people and disciplines together. For example, our Environmental Science and Environmental Studies majors are brought together as freshmen for a team-taught Intro to the Environment course—and again as seniors for a capstone course. This is a start; we can build more collaboration into the model.

And we are making headway. Science—in general—is recognizing that climate change and other complex problems must be tackled by people with separate expertise, but with the ability and inclination to bring that expertise to bear in holistic way. We’re beginning to do the same thing in terms of climate change education, bringing together faculty and disciplines that can give students the discrete science and the big picture.

We also need more inquiry-based, hands-on learning—to develop in students the skills to collect good data, to engage with and conduct good research, and to interpret it. Problem-based learning is a huge pedagogical strength at UD and in Delaware schools, and climate change education is so well-adapted to that strategy.

For example, we have an interdisciplinary, PBL-based course for K–8 certification that rotates in-depth investigations among earth science, life science, physical science, and methods. Because the course isn’t content-specific, it draws on multi-disciplinary faculty to show students how the sciences interact and what that intersection means in terms of public health and safety, public policy, environmental sustainability. The earth science unit on water resources and climate change impact can be transformative for an elementary education major who’s required to take just three science courses for certification.

This is the time for an intensive, cross-disciplinary focus on climate. Right now, states are working out what STEM—that Holy Grail—means for teacher preparation. We have new curricular frameworks from the U.S. Department of Education that emphasize the STEM disciplines and their integration, and local and national agendas that place high-quality STEM education at the center of job creation and economic development.

Climate change can be instructive in how we explain STEM to the public—how it can help us manage social and policy issues. For instance, UD has a STEM residency program—a one-year, heavily in-classroom program for those with STEM degree or experience. It’s a great opportunity to integrate considerable math and analytical skills needed for climate’s huge data volume with science and engineering knowledge—and to layer in the larger implications of our actions and inaction.

Scientific complexity and insufficient interdisciplinary integration aren’t our only challenges. We need still more investigation into how to develop students all along the K–College continuum. We know there are gaps in content, even though Delaware’s curriculum is better than most. What we don’t have is a capstone course at the high school level that gives the holistic view we think is so important for climate change education.

Of course, universities own a big piece of this deficit. As students apply to college, they’re looking for a checklist to meet entrance requirements: a course in biology, a course in chemistry, a course in physics. And while all these disciplines might impinge on climate change, the topic itself is missing.

All of us can work toward a coordinated, coherent K–16 curriculum. We can underpin good climate change education with good science education. We can do more than show students how science can solve the issues we face; we can help teachers critically assess with students whether science is solving them. And then we can explore where the science leaves off, and where the policy based on it kicks in.

In Delaware as in Maryland, there’s huge interest in localizing climate change education, given the Mid-Atlantic’s vulnerable water resources, threats to coastal tourism, our proximity to I-95 (a huge “carbon corridor”), and our ample wind resources. We can bring this issue home for students—literally.

We’ve got a lot of opportunities, especially with Delaware and Maryland’s early competitiveness in Race to the Top; with NSF funding large, multi-disciplinary, multi-state, multi-expertise partnerships; with more policymakers accepting the fact of climate change, and now seeking solutions; and with our respective state leaders and legislatures so committed to high-quality climate change education. Our governors, Martin O’Malley and Jack Markell, deserve a lot of praise.

Climate Change in Informal Education
Before I cede my time, I need to acknowledge that preparing teachers for climate change education and preparing educators are two different things. “Educator” is a much broader set. And as a land-grant, sea-grant university, UD’s constituency is much broader than its students.

We’re obligated to connect all Delawareans with research and resources that advance the public good. That’s an all-age proposition: 3–5 year olds are introduced to ocean and environment topics in early childhood settings; high school students enroll in summer camps exploring processes at work in the Delaware Bay; Delawareans aged 50+ attend lecture series around ecological and conservation issues. Through Delaware Sea Grant, we’re engaging the public on issues with very real impact: what sea-level rise will mean for Delaware, its effect on the natural environment, on ecosystem services, on public health and safety.

And this kind of communication has a timeline. But it also carries an opportunity—to broaden the “appeal” of climate change education, to incorporate the arts, humanities, and social sciences in effective pieces and programs appropriate to larger audiences and accessible by them. For example, UD’s International Polar Year programming—illuminating earth’s polar regions—included art exhibits and films, in addition to lectures and research seminars.

We’re interested in using new media platforms to communicate climate change issues, and to engage an already active student body. Students themselves have hosted forums to discuss climate change—the supporting data and where that data is weak. They’re looking for a balanced assessment that will help them understand and synthesize information—and then educate others.

The University’s environmental portal gathers a lot of this data and feeds into the campus’s sustainability efforts, along with ways to get involved in research, advocacy, and outreach. This is education at a very informal level, but it has impact because it has mass.

We all have a part in climate change education, and we all have a stake in it. There’s absolutely no doubt that we’ll work best if we work together. And I’m grateful that the MADE-CLEAR partnership is facilitating this collaboration.

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