Engaging Girls in Climate Science

This is a story of addressing two problems − climate change and the lack of diversity in the sciences − with one “stone.”

Climate change is a polarizing topic in our country. People from all walks of life have opposing opinions about whether it is occurring or not, if it is caused by humans, and what, if anything, we should collectively do about it. At the same time, our science and engineering workforce is lacking diversity − women are underrepresented.

As a climate scientist I want to help others understand how greenhouse gases, such as those emitted by burning fossil fuels, warm the Earth. As a woman who found her calling in science after college, I also want to help young women explore science at an early age.

So, I did what every scientist would do. I dug into these topics. I learned that people are more likely to accept that climate change is occurring and take preventative actions when they have a better understanding of how greenhouse gases, like those emitted by burning fossil fuels, cause warming. I also learned that girls tend to stray from science around middle school but, that their interest can be retained through exposure to positive science experiences and female scientist role models prior to high school. Furthermore, active learning − in which students engage in learning activities with the help of expert guides, rather than listen passively to lecturing − is our best evidence-based strategy for addressing both of these problems.

Armed with these findings I set out to develop a program that teaches middle school girls about greenhouse gases and climate change. I had two main communication goals for this project. After participating in the learning activities, I wanted girls to be able to explain why greenhouse gases warm the Earth and understand what they could do to help prevent climate change. Second, I wanted them to connect with female scientist role models and become more familiar with the career path to becoming a scientist.

With these goals in mind I developed a set of learning activities designed to help middle school students explore the causes and consequences of climate change, as well as the preventative actions they can take. Through a partnership with Girls in Science and the help of a team of volunteer scientists from the University of Washington, I led two half-day sessions in which nearly 40 middle school girls from the greater Seattle area participated in these learning activities and interacted with real-life women scientists. Following active learning methods, the learning activities did not include any formal lecture. All learning was done through small group discussions and hands-on activities. Activities included:

Sharing Prior Climate Change Knowledge:

A guided, introductory discussion to help participants think about and share with one another what they already know about climate change and greenhouse gases so that they can build on this knowledge in the following activities.

Experimenting with Greenhouse Gas Warming Simulations

Participants explored the effect of greenhouse gases on Earth’s temperature using computer simulation experiments. The simulation software is available free-of-cost through PhET Interactive Simulations at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Exploring Infrared Radiation – the Reason Greenhouse Gases Cause Warming

Hands-on experiments with an infrared camera taught participants how greenhouse gases warm the Earth. This experiment is based on an activity from the University of Washington’s Atmospheric Sciences Outreach Program.

Marlies Kovenock
Infrared camera experiments help participants learn that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere warm the Earth by reemitting infrared radiation back down to Earth’s surface. Here, the infrared camera was used to take a group photograph of participants and scientist volunteers. Participants in the center of the first and second row appear “colder” in color because their insulated clothing absorbs and reemits infrared radiation from their bodies back towards them and away from the camera. (Yellow colors indicate warmer areas emitting more infrared radiation. Blue colors indicate cooler areas emitting less infrared radiation.)

Measuring Greenhouse Gas Warming in a Bottle

Participants measured the influence of a common greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, on the temperature inside two bottles. This activity is adapted from one created by educators at The Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California Berkeley.

Playing a Game to Learn About Where Greenhouse Gases Come From and Where They Go

Participants played a board game that helps them learn about sources and sinks of greenhouse gases and how the amount of greenhouse gases has changed with human activity. We adapted this activity from an activity developed by educators at The Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California Berkeley.

Developing a Personal Action Plan to Prevent Climate Change

Participants selected personal actions they can take in their everyday lives to prevent climate change from a list developed by the California Academy of Sciences’ PlanetVision initiative.

By surveying participants before and after the activities I found that nearly all of them gained climate change knowledge, as well as confidence in their knowledge and ability to take action. I was also encouraged to hear many of the middle school girls informally talking about science, among other avenues, when they discussed their career aspirations with our volunteer scientists during the program.

Marlies Kovenock
Middle school participants add a greenhouse gas to a bottle using household items and compare the temperature inside those bottles to a control. Here, the group discusses the results with two volunteer scientists.

Overall teaching middle school girls about greenhouse gas warming and what it is like to be a scientist was extremely rewarding. I think I was just as inspired, if not more, by their insightful questions and enthusiasm for learning as they were by the program. The active learning techniques we used required more man- (or in this case woman-) power to implement, as each small group needed an expert guide. However, I think the engaging nature of these activities helped participants get excited about the topic. I am truly thankful to the many volunteer scientists that helped me test these activities and implement the program.

My hope is that others will use these activities to discuss how greenhouse gases warm the Earth and the actions available to individuals to help combat the growing emissions of these gases. To that end, the materials for these activities are publicly available. Please contact me at the email address below for more information or to volunteer with our outreach via Girls in Science.

Marlies Kovenock earned her PhD from the University of Washington where she studied how shifts in vegetation influence regional and global climate using numerical modeling experiments. You can reach her at mkovenock@gmail.com.