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How To Teach Climate Change To Skeptical Students? Have Them Collect Their Own Data

Students in Angela Page's AP Environmental Science class measure the temperature of grass near the parking lot of Louisville Male High.

Students Katie Norman and Davis Zimmerman eye the reading on an infrared temperature gun pointed at the asphalt in the student parking lot at Louisville Male High School. They and their classmates in their Advanced Placement environmental science class will be out collecting data in the lot every week this school year. 

“You just take the gun and you point it, and it just magically gets a temperature,” Norman explains.

“Our parking lot, the senior lot is divided into three lots: a white lot, I guess a normal asphalt-colored lot, and then a very dark lot,” Zimmerman goes on. “So what we're trying to test is which one really is hotter, and which one retains heat the worst?”

Over the summer, the school painted a section of one parking lot white for this project.

“There’s a 21 degree temperature difference between the white lot and the black lot,” Norman says, noting the measurement on a clipboard. 

What Norman is witnessing is the urban heat island effect. Basically, urban areas with more hard, dark surfaces trap more heat. While the effect is not directly related to climate change, the two concepts arelinked because each one worsens the other. And Louisville is one of the fastest growing urban heat islands in the country. 

“I never thought that it could be 20 degrees different on a day as cool as it is like today,” Norman said. “And when you tell that to someone who's not in an AP environmental science class it’s going to come as a major shock, and they're going to be asking, ‘Well, why don't we have lighter surfaces?’” 

The class is working with the Partnership for a Green City on the project. The partnership is a collaboration between Louisville Metro Government, the University of Louisville, Jefferson County Public Schools and Jefferson Community and Technical College. They're seeking ways to make Louisville more sustainable and to mitigate the effects of climate change and other issues like the city’s urban heat islands. 

Students at Male High School and Fern Creek High are running parallel projects to collect baseline data about the heat islands at their school campuses — one more urban and one more suburban. Tucked in between the juncture of two interstate highways, and right across the road from the Muhammad Ali International Airport, Male High is a good example of an urban heat island. 

“What we're trying to show is that the lighter surfaces are way more beneficial than the dark,” Norman said. 

For instance, cooler temperatures from lighter surfaces mean air conditioners need to run less, requiring less burning of fossil fuels. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Kentucky generates more than 90 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels

“The more data we have to prove [the urban heat island effect], the more we can convince people that this is something that really needs to be taken into consideration,” Norman said. 

Earlier this year, an NPR/Ipsos poll found that more than half of teachers don’t teach climate change, or even talk about it with students. The main reason teachers gave was that it’s not their subject area. But even science teachers say there are challenges to teaching climate science.

Teaching Skeptical Students Requires Respect And Data

Male High teacher Angela Page orchestrated the heat island project for her students as an introduction to understanding climate change. But they will collect their own data, make their own conclusions, and craft their own solutions. Page says that’s one way to combat her biggest challenge as a teacher teaching climate science — that some of her students any given year are climate skeptics.

“I have a lot of students come in who they truly do not believe that humans have that great of an impact on our planet, much less something as huge of a concept as changing the climate,” Page said.

Page said she tries to make her classroom a safe space for all students, while keeping facts in focus.

“One of the ways that I can teach climate science to students who aren't necessarily buying into the idea is to have them collect numbers themselves.”

In this class, Davis Zimmerman describes himself as a climate skeptic.

“I'm openly a challenger of climate change and what the man-made effects are of climate change,” Zimmerman said.

He says he was nervous about taking this class. It’s an elective, so most of the kids in the class are really into environmental issues. So why’d he pick it?

“I wanted a more educational and like professional learning of climate change, and I was hoping that maybe I could strengthen my own beliefs,” Zimmerman said.

But he said he’s also open to adjusting his views through what he learns.

“If you're not willing to change your views, then there's an issue. It’s about having an open mind,” Zimmerman said. 

For example, he had never heard of the urban heat island effect until this class. 

“So I mean, it's opened me up to new ideas, certainly,” Zimmerman said. “I want to make myself better, I want to make my thoughts stronger, and I want to be able to defend my claims better.” 

His teacher Mrs. Page said that with Zimmerman in the class, she’s doing more homework to anticipate his questions.

“I'm glad he's in this class, because he is making the class better. He is making me a better teacher,” Page said.

And she finds ways to turn the lesson back on students.

Students Will Use Findings To Seek Change

The urban heat island project is one example of how Page's students are observing the way humans affect our environment, a lesson at the heart of climate science. While teaching that concept, Page is at the same time teaching students respect for the scientific process.

“My hope is to teach students how science works, and how data is collected — and how data should be collected — and how, you know, when you have this data, it's important to do something with it,” Page said.

For the rest of the year, Page’s class will look for ways to change the parking lot to mitigate the urban heat island effect. They will also study the effects different pavements have on air quality, water quality and the health of people exercising on the lot. The class plans to use this data to lobby the school district to change the way it repaves lots.

“I'm hoping that when I come back from college, that I can come visit Male, and that all the parking lots will be white, or at least not this pure, dark color,” Katie Norman said. 

Until then, all the students in the class are getting a better grasp of climate change and environmental science, by becoming better scientists.


Liz Schlemmer is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.