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Climate Ed Eval Week: Nicole Holthuis on Lessons Learned from Measuring Intermediary Outcomes

Hi all.  My name is Nicole Holthuis.  I’m an independent research/evaluator specializing in science and environmental education. Much has been said about the desired outcomes of climate change education.  Evaluators have created and shared various instruments to measure changes in participants’ attitudes, interest, knowledge, behaviors, and skills.   But how do we make sense of these data?  For example, when students from one school show significant gains on some desired outcome but others do not, how do we explain what happened and why?

As the lead evaluator for the NASA-funded Climate Change Education Project at Stanford University, I worked with a team to design an evaluation plan that identified and measured the desired outcomes as well as the salient, intermediary features that might affect those outcomes.  As a result, we measured not only changes in student knowledge, skills, and attitudes, but also the level of student engagement, the teacher talk, and student talk.

Lesson Learned: By going into the classrooms to see the project’s curricular unit as it was implemented, we documented the way teachers talk about climate change.  We observed that while teachers discussed with students what we know about climate change, they were much less likely to talk about how we know it.  As a result, the project team provided the next cohort of teachers with more support to teach both the content of climate change and the analytic and argumentation skills necessary to understand that content.  We hypothesized that doing so builds deeper understanding of why the consensus around climate change is strong, where uncertainties remain, and how to communicate all of this to students.

Hot Tip: During our classroom visits we used an instrument to document the level of student engagement (behaviorally speaking), interaction, and disengagement.  We found that the higher the level of interaction (students talking with each other and/or the teacher), the higher the learning gains.

Lesson Learned: Lastly, we saw first-hand not only what students did or didn’t know about climate change, but how little they had heard about the subject.  At the start of the unit, one teacher asked her 6th grade students how many had heard about global warming or climate change. Almost no one in this classroom raised a hand.  It became clear that not all students come to class with pre-conceived notions about what it means to “believe” in climate change.  Their understanding or acceptance isn’t always linked to a political party or ideological stance.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Climate Education Evaluators week. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from members who work in a Tri-Agency Climate Education Evaluators group. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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