Stepping into the Arena of Climate Change Education

August 30th, 2013 by Lynn

I’m not a climate change science researcher. I’m an earth science educator first and foremost in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at my University. Until recently, I have avoided addressing climate change in the university courses I instruct for a number of reasons. While working on my doctorate in science education in the late eighties, I took some graduate glacial geology courses. I learned about ice age cycles, glacial features, and all the missing information and uncertainty in the climate models. As time passed I watched how hyperpartisan the topic of climate change became. Now I have just returned from the ScienceOnline Climate event in Washington D.C. sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and I find myself reflecting on my move into the arena of climate change education because of an NSF grant…

Learning about phenology (leaf out) protocols at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire. (I’m on the far right.)

I have been committed to involving students in environmental, applied, local field work, so they understand the nature of science, develop some useful skills, and connect with their community. In working with teacher candidates I began to focus on phenology- the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events that are influenced by seasonal and climate variations. I see phenology as a way for citizen scientists to meaningful study climate change in their backyard- looking at calendar dates of leaf and bud out of particular plants. Following the right protocol, collected data can be submitted to the national phenology network, so participants can feel they are contributing to vital research. For example, sugar maple farms care about how climate change might affect collection of maple syrup for personal and economic gain. There is uncertainty about how climate change might affect maple trees – if the cycle of freeze thaw temperatures in late winter changes or is shortened this could impact the industry. For sure, maple sugar farmers have always been interested in keeping good records and so there is loads of data to analyze. Vermont data show a trend that maple sugaring is occurring earlier in the season, but predicting the future is complex because of the many variables involved like El Nino.

As an educator I felt a worthwhile contribution to climate change education would be to create an online resource of regional phenology programs for classroom teachers. This work in progress can be found at: http://www.plymouth.edu/webapp/mahara/view/view.php?id=10181. An interesting anecdote about this effort is that as soon as the site went public a teacher from Karachi, Pakistan responded asking what kind of phenology study she could engage in while living in a large city. My intent had been to create a resource for local teachers; it never occurred to me that an international audience would find and use the website – one of the surprises of online work.

My next foray into climate change education was agreeing to be part of a collaborative effort on a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant looking at what prospective and practicing meteorologists know and think about climate change. PSU has the only meteorology major in New Hampshire and we are one of two partnering institutions involved in the NSF project. An interesting, unusual piece of challenging feedback for the investigators on the grant came in the form of a letter sent from NSF, stating that our proposal had reviewed well, but we were asked to clarify what sounded like a “biased” assumption that climate change involved anthropogenic climate warming.

The letter stated that it sounded like we had “overly pre-judged this aspect prior to gathering the data.” We assured NSF that the surveys we planned to develop were intended to assess climate change literacy. We’d be looking at a number of related educational standards and curricular guidelines to determine what students knew and thought about climate change when they entered and exited a program. My role as a science educator on the grant is to help with developing the climate change literacy survey to administer to incoming and graduating students enrolled in meteorology programs. We are just now analyzing results from our pilot survey and gearing up to disseminate the survey nationwide. One interesting finding from our very small sample size looks like students know that phenology has something to do with climate change, but they don’t know the term and want more knowledge about this concept.

The climate change literacy survey for meteorology majors addresses components of several national educational initiatives. The 2012 A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Cross-cutting Concepts, and Core Ideas, which is the model for the National Science Teachers Association’s “Next Generation Science Standards”, addresses climate change in the section on Earth and Space Sciences- Core Idea ESS3 Earth and Human Activity (National Academy of Sciences). This section starts off with a question-How do Earth’s surface processes and human activities affect each other? “Earth’s surface processes affect and are affected by human activities… Indeed, humans have become one of the most significant agents of change in Earth’s surface systems. In particular, it has been shown that climate change—which could have large consequences for all of Earth’s surface systems, including the biosphere—is driven not only by natural effects but also by human activities. Sustaining the biosphere will require detailed knowledge and modeling of the factors that affect climate, coupled with the responsible management of natural resources,” (p. 190-191). The science processes section of the Framework document includes activities that will help students think critically about climate change by: 1. asking questions; 2. developing and using models; 3. planning and carrying out investigations; 4. analyzing and interpreting data; 5. using mathematics and computational thinking; 6. constructing explanations and designing solutions; 7. engaging in argument from evidence; and 8. obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. The intent is not to create a herd mentality one way or the other regarding climate change but engage students in the issue.

My daughter on our roof at our camp after we installed solar photovoltaic panels where we are integrated into the grid.

At the recent, invigorating and optimistic ScienceOnline Climate event, I came away thinking about conversations on actions and solutions and management of resources. The US has the opportunity to develop an energy plan with incentives that promote a more sustainable lifestyle than is the current cultural norm- a lifestyle where it is expected that your home will be energy efficient and you will drive an electric car. We must start by eliminating financing as the major hurdle to doing the right thing for energy use. The PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) program let’s property owners fold the cost of energy improvements into their property taxes. PACE financing allows an owner to reduce their energy use on day 1, but pay for it over years. We can also raise the cap on homeowner generated electricity from solar or wind, and require utilities to carry net metered credits forward indefinitely.  We also need to create incentives for conversion from oil to alternative heating fuels. With some proactive vision from committed citizens to articulate and implement such actions our leaders will have no choice but to follow a path to reduce our reliance on oil. On a personal note, my family has been fortunate to be able to take advantage of economic incentives to install solar hot water, photovoltaics, smart metering, and purchase a plug in Prius; we also chose to buy a house where we can ride bikes or walk to work and school.

One last point, carbon dioxide emissions were reported to have fallen in 2012 to near 1990 levels partly due to increased electrical generation by natural gas which offset coal use. This reduction in coal decreases acid rain, improves air quality, and stabilizes or even decreases the price of electricity. The rapid decrease in carbon dioxide was unexpected by either energy or climate change experts. A sound, sustainable energy policy that reduces energy use and increases use of renewable energy reduces CO2, without actually focusing on CO2. The benefits of such an energy policy means cleaner air, a healthier environment, less chance of catastrophic oil spills, and an improved national trade balance.

About the Author: Mary Ann McGarry is associate professor of Environmental Science and Policy at Plymouth State University, in Plymouth, N.H. Before moving to New Hampshire, she worked in the University of Maine System as a faculty member and researcher for over 15 years. After completing her doctorate in science education at the University of Maine in Orono, she founded and facilitated Maine Project WET (Water Education for Teachers), served as Director of Education for the Maine Lakes Conservancy Institute, and was the natural science educator for the Maine Department of Conservation. In New Hampshire, McGarry served as Director of Education for the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation. All the previously mentioned positions were joint appointments. At Plymouth State University her duties include teaching a project based graduate course on Social Marketing to Foster Environmentally Sustainable Behavior. She can be contacted at: mmcgarry@plymouth.edu. Follow on Twitter @MaryAnnLMcGarry.

PSU assists with new Atlantic Coast ecosystem study

August 24th, 2013 by Lynn

    PSU Research Technician Errin Volitis, left, helps a volunteer scientist set up water sensors in one of 87 rivers involved with the NEST project. COURTESY

    PLYMOUTH — New Hampshire and Maine’s coastal tourism and shellfish industries contribute $400 million annually to the regional economy but the coastal environment is vulnerable to the effects of land development and climate change.

    A team of researchers led by the University of New Hampshire and the University of Maine will conduct a three-year study of the many factors affecting the health of their shared coastal ecosystem.

    This collaboration, funded by a $6 million award from the National Science Foundation, aims to strengthen the scientific basis for decision making for the management of recreational beaches and shellfish harvesting.

    The project, known as the New England Sus- Tainability Consortium, is managed by the EPSCoR programs at UNH and UMaine in partnership with Great Bay Community College, Plymouth State University and Keene State College in New Hampshire, and the College of the Atlantic, University of Southern Maine and University of New England in Maine.

    Citizens interested in participating in the research will have an opportunity to join the New England Stewardship Network which will be developed by UNH Cooperative Extension to connect natural resource organizations, public agencies, scientists and volunteers.

    Coastal water assessment programs currently use the presence of fecal indicator bacteria and, more recently, pathogenic bacteria as risk assessment tools for managing recreational beaches and shellfish harvesting. However, these methods are poor predictors of risk.

    A better understanding of how environmental and climatic conditions affect the dynamics of potential pathogens is essential for informing public resource management decisions.

    For example, water temperature and water runoff from land both influence hazardous bacteria populations, and therefore risk to humans. PSU Research Assistant Professor Doug Earick is participating in the study and says the work has regional importance.

    “We are very excited to continue and expand the work we are doing at PSU around the study of the region’s water resources and impacts humans have on water quality,” Earick said. “This project will provide us with the resources to expand our research into new locations with new partners, but also the opportunity to look beyond the science to think more about how we can engage others in understanding problems and in finding solutions to issues around this critical resource.”

    NEST will select a number of study sites in each state that differ in ecological and social attributes (e.g., closure frequency, watershed loadings, economic impact of coastal tourism or shellfish harvests). Researchers will investigate how natural processes (e.g. water flow in rivers) and human activities (e.g. land development) in coastal watersheds influence bacterial dynamics.

    A major focus of the work is to understand how scientific knowledge is used for making resource management decisions, such as decisions to close shellfish beds to harvesting.

    There is widespread agreement among resource managers and scientists in both states that current beach and shellfish management approaches are flawed; sustainability science research methods offer a means to address these flaws. NEST will use a collaborative process in which resource managers participate in defining problems, identifying research needs, interpreting results and designing solutions.

    “This award is both a testament to the terrific work carried out by the talented researchers at New Hampshire’s colleges and universities, as well as an important look at our state’s coastline and ecosystem,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen (DNH). “New Hampshire’s coastline is critical to our economy and the Granite State’s natural beauty, and this research will play a key role in efforts to protect these areas for future generations.”

    Plymouth State University will participate in the project through expanding a current water research project to the Gulf of Maine, leading workforce development initiatives, and examining inclusive decision-making as a product of ecosystem research. Three of PSU’s faculty (Mark Green, assistant professor of hydrology; Doug Earick, assistant research professor; and Shannon Rogers, assistant professor and ecological economics) and students from the Center for the Environment and Department of Environmental Science and Policy will be involved in the project.

    Green will lead work on the establishment of ten new electrical conductance/ temperature/river stage sites in rivers draining to the Gulf of Maine which will be integrated into the existing NH LoVoTECS program that engages local citizen scientists to help maintain high-frequency water quality sensors that are used to understand the hydrology of the contributing watershed.

    Earick will oversee a series of statewide and regional training and dissemination workshops on the implementation and effectiveness of curricular changes that incorporate civic engagement and student service-learning around the overall scientific scope of the project.

    Rogers will utilize social science approaches to ecosystem research to support more inclusive decision making to produce tangible information that can be compared to management alternatives and used by decision makers to communicate and elect more preferable scenarios.

    The mission of N.H. EPSCoR is to broaden and strengthen New Hampshire’s research capacity and competitiveness through research, education and economic development. It’s critical for the state to broaden and diversify the capacity to conduct research; to support business, industry and society with a workforce educated in science, engineering and mathematics; and to improve communication between scientists and the public.

     

    PSU assists with New Atlantic Coast Ecosystem Study

    August 15th, 2013 by Lynn

      PSU Research Technician Errin Volitis, left, helps volunteer scientist set up water sensors in one of 87 rivers involved with the NEST project. COURTESY

      PLYMOUTH — New Hampshire and Maine’s coastal tourism and shellfish industries contribute $400 million annually to the regional economy but the coastal environment is vulnerable to the effects of land development and climate change.

      A team of researchers led by the University of New Hampshire and the University of Maine will conduct a three year study of the many factors affecting the health of their shared coastal ecosystem. This collaboration, funded by a $6 million award from the National Science Foundation, aims to strengthen the scientific basis for decision making for the management of recreational beaches and shellfish harvesting.

      The project, known as the New England SusTainability Consortium (NEST), is managed by the EPSCoR programs at UNH and UMaine in partnership with Great Bay Community College, Plymouth State University, and Keene State College in New Hampshire, and the College of the Atlantic, University of Southern Maine, and University of New England in Maine. Citizens interested in participating in the research will have an opportunity to join the New England Stewardship Network which will be developed by UNH Cooperative Extension to connect natural resource organizations, public agencies, scientists, and volunteers.

      Coastal water assessment programs currently use the presence of fecal indicator bacteria and, more recently, pathogenic bacteria as risk assessment tools for managing recreational beaches and shellfish harvesting However, these methods are poor predictors of risk. A better understanding of how environmental and climatic conditions affect the dynamics of potential pathogens is essential for informing public resource management decisions. For example, water temperature and water runoff from land both influence hazardous bacteria populations, and therefore risk to humans. PSU Research Assistant Professor Doug Earick is participating in the study and says the work has regional importance.

      “We are very excited to continue and expand the work we are doing at PSU around the study of the region’s water resources and impacts humans have on water quality,” Earick said. “This project will provide us with the resources to expand our research into new locations with new partners, but also the opportunity to look beyond the science to think more about how we can engage others in understanding problems and in finding solutions to issues around this critical resource.”

      NEST will select a number of study sites in each state that differ in ecological and social attributes (e.g., closure frequency, watershed loadings, economic impact of coastal tourism or shellfish harvests). Researchers will investigate how natural processes (e.g. water flow in rivers) and human activities (e.g. land development) in coastal watersheds influence bacterial dynamics. A major focus of the work is to understand how scientific knowledge is used for making resource management decisions, such as decisions to close shellfish beds to harvesting.

      There is widespread agreement among resource managers and scientists in both states that current beach and shellfish management approaches are flawed; sustainability science research methods offer a means to address these flaws. NEST will use a collaborative process in which resource managers participate in defining problems, identifying research needs, interpreting results and designing solutions.

      “This award is both a testament to the terrific work carried out by the talented researchers at New Hampshire’s colleges and universities, as well as an important look at our state’s coastline and ecosystem,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). “New Hampshire’s coastline is critical to our economy and the Granite State’s natural beauty, and this research will play a key role in efforts to protect these areas for future generations.”

      Plymouth State University will participate in the project through expanding a current water research project to the Gulf of Maine, leading workforce development initiatives, and examining inclusive decision-making as a product of ecosystem research. Three of PSU’s faculty (Mark Green, assistant professor of hydrology; Doug Earick, assistant research professor; and Shannon Rogers, assistant professor and ecological economics) and students from the Center for the Environment and Department of Environmental Science and Policy will be involved in the project. Green will lead work on the establishment of ten new electrical conductance/temperature/river stage sites in rivers draining to the Gulf of Maine which will be integrated into the existing NH LoVoTECS program that engages local citizen scientists to help maintain high-frequency water quality sensors that are used to understand the hydrology of the contributing watershed. Earick will oversee a series of statewide and regional training and dissemination workshops on the implementation and effectiveness of curricular changes that incorporate civic engagement and student service-learning around the overall scientific scope of the project. Rogers will utilize social science approaches to ecosystem research to support more inclusive decision-making to produce tangible information that can be compared to management alternatives and used by decision makers to communicate and elect more preferable scenarios.

      The mission of NH EPSCoR is to broaden and strengthen New Hampshire’s research capacity and competitiveness through research, education and economic development. It’s critical for the state to broaden and diversify the capacity to conduct research; to support business, industry and society with a workforce educated in science, engineering and mathematics; and to improve communication between scientists and the public.

      What research at Quincy Bog reveals about the past

      December 8th, 2012 by Lynn
        Quincy Bog

        A CORE sample is taken from Quincy Bog in Rumney to expose its core. COURTESY

        RUMNEY — Quincy Bog Natural Area may be best known as a local spot that provides opportunities for recreational walking, observing plants and animals and attending organized programs and walks for residents and visitors in the Pemi-Baker area.

        But its educational mission extends further with partners. Local teachers run field trips with younger students hoping to earn a Jr. Naturalist Badge. University researchers bring students to apply their academic learning and research techniques to questions in a real-world setting.

        Dr. Lisa Doner is one such researcher using the Bog as a teaching tool. Doner is a member of the Center for the Environment and the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at Plymouth State University.

        Recently she led a group of future scientists to conduct field research and collect samples from underneath the ice at Quincy Bog, in the middle of winter. During the following semester, students began a basic analysis on the collected material at the sedimentology lab on the Plymouth State University campus.

        What secrets are hidden in the layers of mud, sand and clay beneath the Quincy Bog in Rumney? First a couple of definitions to ground the reader. The students used methods from two branches of science called paleoecology and paleolimnology.

        Paleoecology is the branch of ecology that deals with the interaction between ancient organisms and their environment. Paleolimnology is the study of ancient lakes from their sediment and fossils.

        The primary method used in this study is analyses of physical characteristics of the sediments underlying the pond at the Quincy Bog. This includes each sample’s density, ratio of mineral to organic material, particle-size and tendency to respond to weak magnetic fields.

        Two kinds of cores were collected: a surface core, that captures the delicate interface between the water and the sediments, and a long core. “The surface core is important,” said Doner, “because it holds recent sediments. It forms the bridge, in essence, between our written record and the geologic record, since they overlap in time.”

        She continued to explain that the surface might contain a “record” of recent beaver dam expansion, Quincy Bog Road construction and development projects, and floods that occurred in the last century. The long core, according to Doner, is a sequence of 1-meterlong cores.

        “The long core provided several surprises,” she said.

        First, it seems that the pond at the Bog has been around for a very long time and that beaver are not the sole reason for the area being a wetland.

        Second, the long core contains materials near the bottom that are consistent with glaciers that passed through New Hampshire 12,000 years ago. Therefore Doner surmises the core must contain at least 12,000 years of “geologic memory.

        The last surprise comes from preliminary analysis of the surface core. “In recent times, perhaps within the last 150 years,” said Doner, “an enormous disturbance, or multiple disturbances, changed the character of the site.”

        Before she can tell more about these disturbances, Doner needs to learn the age of the sediments involved. With the help of a grant from the Geological Society of America, two undergraduate environmental science students will use lead dating techniques which provide a timeline for events of the past 150 years.

        “Having information about the age of the sediments will allow us to look at the deposits laid down during 1927, 1936, 1938, 1973 and 1989, to determine if the historically large floods in these years left a mark in the Bog’s sediments,” said Donor.

        Other possible explanations will be reviewed as well as the cores continue to be studied. Additional dating is underway, using radiocarbon analyses to provide ages covering thousands of years.

        To read more about this interesting project check out the current volume of Bog Notes at http://www.quincybog.org/bognotes.htm . Quincy Bog volunteer Dan Kemp has prepared a documentary of this activity and it can be viewed on the Quincy Bog website at http://www.quincybog.org/photogallery.htm.

         

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