Lessons Learned: How Can We Connect Middle School Students to Climate Change and Ocean Acidification?

A collaboration between UW students and DNR using local nearshore ecosystems as examples to center a climate change curriculum. A capstone in fulfillment of the UW PCC Graduate Certificate in Climate Science.

Written by: Amanda Arnold, Katie Byrnes, and Lizzy Matteri

Climate change is so vast and complex, riddled with intricate interactions, making  teaching it to young students daunting. Additionally, while many middle school teachers have training in biology and want to incorporate climate change and biological responses to climate change in their teaching, they often lack formal coursework in climate change. We found ourselves wrestling with these issues as we embarked on this capstone project for our Graduate Certificate in Climate Science (GCeCS). What exactly should we focus on? How can we help students connect with the material? How can we create something that is comprehensive enough that teachers feel like they have all the necessary information, but is flexible and adaptable enough that they can tailor it to their own classroom needs?

We realized that the best way to get both students and teachers engaged was to shift the focus to the local level! While climate change is a global issue, using a local example can help make the concepts covered seem less faraway and abstract—climate change is affecting us in Washington State too, after all. Not only that, but giving the students a way to connect with others in the community who are working to collect data to inform strategies to combat the impacts of climate change, can help empower students in the face of climate change. We realized that incorporating community science into our capstone project, so that students could learn about what is being done in their own “backyards” was a great way to accomplish both of these goals.   

Our climate change curriculum 

For this capstone, we collaborated with Washington DNR to create an engaging and interactive climate science curriculum focused on nearshore ecosystems in Washington State. DNR’s Acidification Nearshore Monitoring Network (Project ANeMoNe) focuses on increasing awareness of issues like ocean acidification and warming through student engagement and public outreach projects. Project ANeMoNe monitors water quality at nearshore sites throughout the state with the help of community scientists, and was interested in working with graduate students completing the GCeCS to create a curriculum about ocean acidification in nearshore eelgrass ecosystems using data collected by their community scientists.

Community scientists from DNRs Project ANeMoNe collecting data in an eelgrass bed in Washington’s nearshore ecosystem. Photo courtesy of the Washington Department of Natural Resources ANeMoNe Project.

We created a complete unit, broken down into three separate but interconnected modules, that satisfy the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for middle school science students. The first module introduces nearshore ecosystems in Washington and is designed to help students think critically about the type of habitat and ecosystem services that eelgrass beds provide. This links to the second module, which dives into ocean acidification and asks students to think about how carbon dioxide interacts with the ocean, and how eelgrass can impact this relationship through uptake and sequestration. Our final module has students apply what they have learned about the nearshore eelgrass ecosystem and ocean acidification to determine the cascading impacts of ocean acidification on the nearshore environment and ocean as a whole. 

Since we weren’t able to present our curriculum to students in a classroom setting, we led a virtual teacher workshop. Teachers were introduced to the Program on Climate Change and the graduate certificate and DNR’s Project ANeMoNe. We led middle school teachers through a lesson and gave them time in breakout rooms to go through one of the new activities. At the close of the workshop, teachers were asked to discuss in breakout sessions what they enjoyed about the lesson, if they saw it as a lesson they could use in their classroom, and if so, how they would adapt it for their classroom. Additionally, teachers were able to earn two Washington Science Teachers Association (WSTA) clock hours for participating and providing feedback to incorporate into our final curriculum. 

What did we learn?

Developing a curriculum is hard! Teaching young students about complex topics like ocean acidification and climate change in a way that is both accessible and engaging, is difficult. This is especially true when considering the varying background knowledge middle schoolers might have. Since climate change is such a vast topic, which can be explored in many different ways, a big challenge was identifying the big takeaways for students. First, we had to narrow our scope, taking into account the overarching context of ANeMoNe and focusing on ocean acidification, while maintaining a structure that could reasonably be explored in our short time frame. Then, we had to figure out how to structure lessons and activities to reach the ultimate learning objectives.

Teaching techniques are important! Having a clear idea of the teaching techniques you want to use is vital to developing a cohesive curriculum. Our advisor, Prof. Mark Windschitl, emphasized the importance of modeling and hands-on activities when teaching about complex systems. We wanted to incorporate a variety of learning styles into our unit so highlighting those techniques was important to us. Additionally, the educators we surveyed reacted positively to using anchoring events, local context, and community science to contextualize climate change principles for students.

Some examples of the species cards that we created for an activity where the students will be thinking about interactions between species in the nearshore ecosystem

Building this unit taught us about science communication as a whole. The lessons we learned in developing this curriculum can directly translate to other aspects of science communication. Building off previous examples, focusing on anchoring events, and using local context are all great ways of communicating climate change concepts to anyone, not just middle schoolers. We are all grateful for learning methods that make climate change topics more engaging and will use these concepts in the future in many other contexts. 

Lizzy Matteri is a soon to be graduate of the UW School of Marine and Environmental Affairs and completed this project for the Graduate Certificate in Climate Science. While her thesis focuses on the impacts of sediment from the Elwha River dam removals on Chinook salmon spawning habitat, she’s also interested in ocean acidification and climate change. Working as a teaching assistant as a Fulbright Fellow led to her interest in science education and communication. Lizzy enjoyed being able to combine these passions through this collaborative project.

Katie Byrnes is a soon to be graduate of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs and completed this project for the Graduate Certificate in Climate Science. Her research focuses on marine spatial planning for kelp aquaculture and rehabilitation in Puget Sound and how increased seaweed abundance can provide localized bioremediation and ocean acidification mitigation. Katie enjoyed the opportunity to combine her interests in ocean acidification and science communication through this capstone project. 

Amanda Arnold is a soon to be graduate of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs and completed this project for the Graduate Certificate in Climate Science. Although her thesis explores the best practices for determining tourist carrying capacity in marine ecosystems, she has always been interested in local, community based science and management. Volunteering for the Girl Guides of Canada and as a wet lab educator for the Vancouver Aquarium ignited her interest in early marine science education. Amanda is glad she was able to learn more about these topics through this project.