Saturday, September 21, 2013

Climate Change Workshop, part 4.

I continue to report from the Climate Change Workshop sponsored by Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESE) and the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, helping about 30 middle and high school teachers figure out how to teach about global warming.

As the afternoon session began, Dr. Julie Angle, an education professor at Oklahoma State University, led a discussion about the goals of science education. When we teach students about global warming, we do not want to preach the environmental gospel to them, but to use global climate change as an example of a topic that we can explore by the methods of scientific inquiry. Let the global warming denialists do the preaching.

Julie, who was chosen by the Oklahoma legislature to be on the school textbook selection committee, pointed out that science is both reliable and tentative. These two terms sound like they contradict one another, but actually it is the tentative nature of science that makes it reliable. Because science is tentative, its mistakes can be corrected by new evidence, and that's why it is reliable. Science also requires creative thinking; a computer (such as they are now) cannot do science. Julie led us through discussions about numerous other characteristics of science.

One of the activities that Julie led was for the participants to look at (fake) cancelled checks and make hypotheses about the story behind the checks. No group looked at all of the checks. Because no single group had all the information, they came up with, and debated, contradictory explanations for the story line, and even debated whether some of the checks were related to the story or not.

Then Monica Deming, a student working at the Climatological Survey, handed out simulated wood cores (real ones would have been too fragile). Tree cores are cylinders of wood removed horizontally from a tree trunk by a hollow drill known as a borer. Trees produce a new ring of wood each year. If you count the rings, you can tell how old the tree is. (That is, except in trees in which the heartwood rots away.) A thick ring means that the growing season was good, for example a lot of rain, so that the tree produced a lot of wood; a thin ring indicates a bad year. The pattern of thick and thin wood layers is therefore a record of growing conditions over decades or even centuries. But not every tree is equally valuable as a climatic record. A tree whose roots grow in a spring may produce thick rings every year, regardless of whether or not droughts have occurred.

First, you have to calculate a correlation between ring width and rainfall for years in which rainfall was measured. Participants constructed their own graphs of ring width as a function of rainfall, from which they could calculate a slope. Once you have the slope, you can calculate rainfall for years too far in the past for any rainfall records to exist. Sometimes you can go pretty far into the past; the oldest tree known, a bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California, just recently discovered, is 5,062 years old. Of course, you have to correct for the age of the tree at the time the wood was produced; rings produced when the tree is young are thicker than those produced when the tree is old. This makes sense because a thick ring with a small circumference has about the same amount of wood as a thin ring with a large circumference.

Then Danny Mattox, a middle school teacher, and Andrea Melvin, an education specialist at Mesonet, showed us some online resources available for teaching climate change, everything from and to data sites.

During a round table discussion, we found that the teachers have not encountered difficulty in teaching about global warming. However much our political and business leaders disapprove of climate science, the teachers encounter mostly apathy from students, and only occasionally have students who refuse to consider the reality of climate change. Nor have the teachers experienced opposition from school administrators. To me, this was a surprising result. The only explanation we could think of, as we discussed it, was that climate change will become as controversial a topic in schools as evolution is now, sometime in the future. It might mean that the teachers are ready to start getting their students to discover the evidence of global warming before the problem of denialism has a chance to grow.

I have to admit that my experience has been similar. Many of my Oklahoma college students oppose evolution, but only a few oppose climate science. At least for now, the denialist views espoused so vigorously by Senator Inhofe are apparently not of great interest to the newer generation. In fact, the teachers told me, the students seem to be excited to actually do a few things, such as recycling and driving smaller cars, that will help to reduce carbon emissions. Dare I hope that there is some some hope for the future, at least in Oklahoma?

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