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Climate change is turning science students into informed activists

A shift in the way we teach science, along with the promotion of STEM, is turning our students into informed activists – and that’s something to celebrate, says Dr Joanna Rhodes…

  • Climate change is turning science students into informed activists

Watching or listening to politics, it is easy to become downhearted by the ranks of politicians and world leaders who either deny climate change (a prime example being Donald Trump), or accept that humanity is having a huge and irrevocable effect on the world, and yet fail to make rapid, meaningful and significant changes.

I am not alone in feeling this way; in fact, I am in the best possible company, as the young people of the world declare that politicians are not doing enough; that they cannot and must not ignore the situation.

By initiating her School Strike for Climate, Greta Thunberg (16) took a stand against procrastination and inaction. It is a stand that has inspired many young activists to demonstrate and campaign, either with her movement or by initiating campaigns of their own.

And what interests me the most about Greta Thunberg’s climate crusade is where it all began: her passionate belief and trust in the scientists who have presented the evidence for climate change and their predictions of its impact on our future.

It urged me to explore whether, globally, the youth of today are on the brink of entering a new scientific revolution, impassioned by the messages delivered by science rather than religion or politics.

Clear campaigns

Until now, world leaders have become accustomed to viewing scientific research, evidence and predictions as ‘advice’ upon which to act; often only if the political and economic situation is favourable.

Greta Thunberg demonstrated that she is willing to turn on leaders and tell them that it is not advice; the evidence presented by scientists points to a dire existential crisis for humanity.

To act or not to act should not be their choice to make, because if they make the wrong choice and ignore science, it threatens the future of billions of young people around the globe.

While Greta Thunberg has provided a welcome figurehead for young people to rally around, her movement is by no means the starting point of scientific activism among young people.

It is a phenomenon I have observed much closer to home, to an ever-increasing extent, and which seems to have gone hand in hand with increasing levels of engagement in science education.

Over the last five years in particular, I have been proud to witness, firsthand, students in secondary school engaging with and campaigning on issues as diverse as climate change, single-use plastics, ecosystem destruction, extinction and endangered wildlife, overpopulation, water and sanitation.

If you take the time to listen to their campaigns and speeches, read their literature and look at their posters and banners it is clear that their insight, command of scientific terminology, willingness to debate, capacity to defend their position and level of trust in scientific principles is sophisticated and compelling

When I reflect on my role as a science teacher I hope that their erudicity can, in some part, be attributed to positive changes in the way we have raised the profile of science in the curriculum; our outreach and improved public engagement with science; and advances in how science has been taught.

Trusted experts

STEM is an acronym that has defined post-millennial science education. As such, it has been extraordinarily successful in promoting the group of subjects it represents; gaining them additional funding and status in the curriculum.

More wide reaching are the plethora of clubs, societies and public engagement events devoted to the promotion of STEM as, multifariously, a career, a suite of academic subjects and a recreational activity to engage children and their parents alike.

Clubs I have enjoyed the most include Kitchen Sink Science, Astronaut Club and Eco-Schools.

And my school was not alone; over a three-year period from 2011 to 2014 there was a 15% increase in the number of 16-24-year-olds who recall having a science or engineering club in their school.

These clubs have also been linked with young people becoming increasingly likely to work in a science related job.

During the post-millennial period in which our young activists have grown up, public attitudes to science have been studied, with the results consistently published by the UK Government between 2000 and 2014.

The 2014 study quantified a long-term increase in support, with the public appearing much more interested in science in 2014 than they were in 2000.

A key finding of the 2014 report is that 91% of people agree that young people’s interest in science is essential for our future prosperity.

Also informative was a marked increase in trust in scientists and engineers.

Our young activists have grown up through this upsurge in support for and trust in science and it seems to have rubbed off. Probably most crucially, the data show that these long-term trends are not due to people’s attitudes changing as they have got older.

More often they can be attributed to the emergence of a new, younger generation who are much more engaged with science. 

Scrutiny and understanding

Science teaching has changed markedly during the time I have been part of the profession.

It has moved from a highly content led subject; with the presentation of scientific facts and, to a certain extent, an assumption that they would be accepted and learned; to a subject that focuses on how experiments are designed, how discoveries are made, and how we should scrutinise and evaluate our results.

How Science Works (HSW) in its various forms and iterations across KS3 and KS4 has armed students with the necessary tools to carry out their own research, to make and investigate hypotheses and to design experiments and address errors.

Gaining an understanding of HSW has, in my view, been crucial to increasing levels of trust in and understanding of science among young people

Nineteen years into the new millennium, 82% of young people aged 14-18 considered their school science lessons to have been interesting compared with only 64% of adults.

I sincerely hope this means that science in the classroom has become more inspirational and engaging.

Promoting engagement with science as well as seeking relevance, and cross curricular links has certainly underpinned our practice, and is still at the forefront of my mind every time I sit down to plan a lesson, for my class or Teach Secondary!

In a system where success continues to be measured by examination results and inspections; how much more important and significant it would be if education, and science education in particular, has contributed towards producing a world of young activists that have the confidence, knowledge and resilience to save our planet.

The status of science – in figures

The most recent report into Public Attitudes to Science found that:

  • 91% of people agree that young peoples’ interest in science is essential for our future prosperity
  • 82% of young people considered their school science lessons to have been interesting compared with only 64% of adults
  • 90% of people think that scientists make a valuable contribution to society
  • 90% of people trust scientists working for universities
  • 84% of people think that science is such a big part of our lives that we should all take an interest
  • 70% of people agree that ‘experts’ and not the public should advise the Government about the implications of scientific developments

Dr Joanna Rhodes M.Chem, D.Phil, MRSC is head of sixth form at Wakefield Girls’ High School.

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