> The initiative
Widespread climate literacy is essential for informed decision-making at every level of society. Examples from the literature evidence that climate literacy is a precursor to climate concern and action (Tobler, Visschers, & Siegrist, 2012). At an international level, the Paris Agreement (UN, 2015; Article 12) commits parties ‘to enhance climate change education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information’ (p. 16). However, Australia’s latest (2021) Nationally Determined Contributions update did not include reference to children or to climate change education as part of its ongoing commitment to the Agreement (Australian Government, 2021). While education for sustainability is a key component of Australian education policies, details on how climate change is specifically addressed by formal education are absent from these policies (UNESCO, 2015).
Recognising the climate literacy gap, Curious Climate Tasmania (CCT) was initiated in 2019 to deliver public-powered scientific engagement, bridging the gap between experts and audiences with credible, relevant information about climate change. There are many science communication projects, but the difference with CCT is that it flips the typical science communication model on its head by asking what the public wanted to know. These efforts also align to specific targets as set by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including 4.7 (Ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development…) and 13.3 (Improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning).
Building on evidence of the value of climate conversations, Curious Climate Tasmania invited local people (in Tasmania, Australia), through extensive dissemination by the local radio station, to submit questions on any aspect of climate change they were curious about. The project team then conducted a geographically specific thematic analysis of all submitted questions and collated teams of researchers to deliver answers to those most popular questions at four public presentations around the state (Kelly et al., 2020). The project was highly successful. A follow-up survey of 46 participants (conducted two years after the project ran) revealed that 82% of participants learned something new about climate change, 70% felt empowered to take climate action, and 81% shared the information they learned with family and friends. Based on this success, the project format was modified to engage specifically with school children on their climate questions and Curious Climate Schools was conceived.
Understanding that effective climate education approaches should emphasise climate action competence, not only climate knowledge (Vaughter, 2016)- directing students beyond critical thinking to critical action, by both learning to know and learning to do (Vaughter, 2016). Recent research has emphasised the importance of dialogue in teaching climate change and assisting young people to make sense of it (Rousell & Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles, 2020). Conversations about climate change among young adults and with their teachers, friends, and family support their development of concern about climate change and adaptive climate change behaviour (Goldberg, van der Linden, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2019; Valdez, Peterson, & Stevenson, 2017).
The literature to date on climate change and education has primarily focused on knowledge and understanding of climate change science (Boon, 2009, 2010), effective learning strategies (Monroe, Plate, Oxarart, Bowers, & Chaves, 2019; Sezen-Barrie, Miller-Rushing, & Hufnagel, 2019), and educator experiences (Lombardi & Sinatra, 2012). This research suggests that effective climate education strategies include providing students with opportunities to interact with scientists – to address their climate understanding and discuss their opportunities to participate in climate action projects (Monroe et al., 2019). Accessible climate change education, where connections between people and climate change are made clear, can have a lasting impact on the everyday decisions that students make, and prompt them to consider how their decisions may impact climate change (Cordero, Centeno, & Todd, 2020).
Thus, we consider society-level climate literacy as the goal, and effective climate change education – beginning in schools – as a method for achieving this and supporting SDGs 4.7 and 13.3. So, building on the success of the initial year for the general public, CCT expanded in 2020 to pilot the Curious Climate Schools project, which then increased in scale in 2021 to include 36 schools and programs and over one thousand students. The program will run again in semester 2, 2022. Curious Climate Schools is an engagement and research project that aims to address children’s unanswered questions and concerns about climate change, given that climate literacy learning is not currently mandated in the Australian curriculum, and is rarely taught holistically in schools in Tasmania.
In Curious Climate Schools, teachers across Tasmania were invited to register their classes for the project and provided with guidelines to facilitate brainstorming sessions where each class formulated questions about any aspect of climate change. The local classes then voted on up to ten questions they most wanted to be answered and submitted these to the project website with their teachers’ assistance. A total of 280 student questions were submitted, of which 273 were ‘unique’ questions, in that they were only asked once using the same words. Many of the questions submitted were complex, and often included multiple sub-questions. The Curious Climate Schools team harnessed the collective knowledge of 57 experts from the University of Tasmania, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), and other research organisations, who volunteered to answer student questions. These experts included climate scientists, climate communicators, conservation biologists, fire scientists, chemists, lawyers, engineers, ecologists, psychologists, oceanographers, Indigenous knowledge holders, and health scientists. Each student question was answered, either in video or webpage format. The expert responses were reviewed by the project team to ensure that they were understandable and accessible for school-age children (e.g. addressed jargon or lengthy responses) and engaging images were added to text responses where relevant. The project and the Curious Climate Schools website (containing expert answers and other climate information) was launched at the beginning of the United Nations COP26 Climate Summit.
The expert responses to student questions were uploaded to the Curious Climate Schools website where they could (and still can) be explored by students and their teachers (as well as the wider public) in multiple ways:
- through a school class webpage – where classes could review answers to their own questions and see what other classes asked;
- through an interactive Google map – which identifies where each question came from;
- through a set of themed webpages – including most asked questions (and their responses), questions about looking ahead to the future, and questions on taking action and what needs to happen to limit or stop climate change, and what we can all do to help; and,
- by typing key terms or phrases into a search bar.
Finally, in addition to providing answers to student questions on the website, the project also coordinated expert visits to 33 classrooms (online and in person) across Tasmania. The purpose of these visits was not only for experts to answer student questions about climate change, but to also demonstrate how many different types of learning are involved in climate research, and to offer real-life examples of how different people are working to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Curious Climate Tasmania is a collaborative project between the University of Tasmania-hosted Centre for Marine Socioecology (CMS), the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS), and the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA), ABC Radio, and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Many additional organisations from across Tasmania provided access to an amazing group of researchers and experts for the public events.