An Investigation of Student Engagement in a Global Warming Debate

By Schweizer, Diane M.; Kelly, Gregory J. | Journal of Geoscience Education, January 2005 | Go to article overview
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An Investigation of Student Engagement in a Global Warming Debate

Schweizer, Diane M., Kelly, Gregory J., Journal of Geoscience Education


This study investigates how using debate as a pedagogical tool for addressing earth system science concepts can promote active student learning, present a realistic and dynamic view of science, and provide a mechanism for integrating the scientific, political and social dimensions of global environmental change. Using global warming as an example of earth system science, we consider how participation in debate provides an avenue for engaging students in science. Our investigation draws from studies of school science focusing on the use of argument as a pedagogical tool and examines how students make use of observationally-based climatic data sets when debating the cause of global warming. We found that, when crafting their arguments, students used observational data sets in four ways: 1) to support their central argument; 2) to negate the central argument of the opposing side; 3) to present challenges to the opposing side; and 4) to raise new scientific questions. We also found that students also used climatic data sets when discussing the social and political dimensions of global warming.


Student engagement with environmental issues offers potential opportunities for learning science. In this paper we argue that the analysis of global temperature change provides appropriate contexts for evidence-based discussions of contemporary socioscientific issues. Global warming refers to the observed increase in the earth's average surface temperature of ~1.0 C over the past 100 years (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change , 2001). Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading authority on global climate science, attributes most of this warming to human activities, notably the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests (IPCC, 2001). Despite this recognition, considerable uncertainty associated with the simulation and prediction of global climate remains (IPCC, 2001; Kerr, 2002; Meehl et al., 2000). This uncertainty stems from: an incomplete understanding of Earth system feedbacks and interactions; limitations of computer climate models; and assumptions regarding the future way of life and industrial production of Earth inhabitants. Individuals are thus faced with challenges when placed in decision-making positions related to the global climate (Caldeira et al., 2003; IPCC, 2000; Randall et al., 2003).

The formulation of evidence in support of knowledge claims is central to scientific practice (Duschl, 1990; Kelly & Takao, 2002) and has been identified as a pedagogically inventive way to engage students in meaningful discussions related to controversial scientific issues such as global climate change (Driver et al., 2000; Geddis, 1991; Jimenez-Aleixandre & Rodriguez, 2000; Newton et al., 1999). National scientific organizations (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993; National Research Council, 1996) view the development of a scientifically literate populous as a central goal of science education where scientific literacy includes the ability to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.

Earth system science explores the interactions among the major components of the Earth system-continents, oceans, atmosphere, ice and life. Earth system science seeks to distinguish between natural and human-induced causes of change and to understand and predict consequences of change (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2003). Familiar and compelling Earth system investigations (e.g. stratospheric ozone depletion, land use change) provide a highly motivational vehicle for engaging students in science and science-related discussions. Therefore, examination of how global warming and other Earth system investigations can provide opportunities to engage students with socioscientific issues is a research topic of considerable potential.

Our review of studies related to global warming in the science classroom indicates the majority of studies focus on identifying student perceptions.

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