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USF Geology Professor Jeffrey Ryan (right) is lead
investigator on the National Science Foundation grant.
Co-principal investigators are Allan Feldman (left) of the
College of Education, Frank Muller-Karger from the
College of Marine Science and Fernando Gibes from the
University of Puerto Rico.

Educating people about climate change

A complex and interdisciplinary subject, climate science is not easy to teach. Nonetheless, University of South Florida Geology Professor and Department Chair Jeffrey Ryan says it is essential for people to have a basic, scientific grasp of the environmental changes taking place and their impacts so they can make critical decisions affecting their lives.

“No matter what you attribute it to, it’s clear that weather patterns are changing,” Ryan said. “Rainfall patterns are changing. Seasons are becoming more extreme. Hurricanes more numerous. And all of these changes, which are well documented through direct measurements, affect everything that happens in your life. Where you grow crops. Where you can build your house. If there is water available to drink. It’s all connected.”

Helping people make those connections -- educating students, teachers and the general public about global climate change and its impact -- is at the heart of a new National Science Foundation (NSF) program: The Climate Change Education Partnership. And thanks to a recent $974,000 grant, USF is on the ground floor of the innovative education initiative.

“The National Science Foundation is concerned about what appears to be a lack of understanding among U.S. citizens of what climate change is and how it affects their lives,” said Allan Feldman, professor of science education in the College of Education’s Department of Secondary Education. “Therefore, it has begun a major effort to develop new ways to educate the public about the issue.”

An interdisciplinary team of faculty from three USF colleges -- Arts and Sciences, Education and Marine Science -- was awarded the grant to develop implementable education and outreach plans related to climate change. The team, which includes the Hillsborough County School System, the Florida Aquarium and the University of Puerto Rico, represents one of 15 projects nationwide selected to participate in the NSF initiative.

Ryan is lead investigator, with co-principal investigators Feldman, Frank Muller-Karger from the College of Marine Science, and Fernando Gilbes from the University of Puerto Rico. Their project is called the Coastal Areas Climate Change Education (CACCE) Partnership. The USF-led team will focus on the impacts of climate change in coastal areas with sea level change as its core theme.

“We are specifically interested in addressing the impacts of climate change that manifest themselves in low-lying coastal areas in Florida and the Caribbean,” said Ryan. “So we’re initially focusing on issues related to sea level rise and freshwater resources.”

According to Ryan, it’s a natural starting point in a region that is not very far above sea level. “The manifestations of changing sea levels are something you can see and measure, how much shoreline there is, how far away barrier islands are. Changes in sea level can impact life in low-lying areas dramatically.”

The same is true for freshwater resources. “Changing rainfall patterns affect the recharging of the Florida aquifer. And that can affect things like whether a sinkhole opens up if you pump too much water out of the aquifer, as happened across Hillsborough County last winter,” said Ryan.

The objectives of the USF project are threefold.

“The first goal is gathering the information that’s already out there about how to teach people of all ages, students and adults, about climate change,” Feldman said. This inventory of educational resources will become part of a USF CACCE portal to be hosted in by the USF Library.

The second part of the project is to develop and pilot new approaches for engaging students, educators and citizens in climate-related issues and helping them learn about climate change and its effects on coastal regions.

And the third objective is to develop broader partnerships, geographically spanning the Gulf and Caribbean, and including private sector organizations, governmental agencies and educational institutions -- schools, as well as educators in informal learning settings such as museum and parks.

Current community partners, Hillsborough County Schools led by science coordinator Larry Plank; and the Florida Aquarium, led by vice president for education Debbi Stone, will help gather information about citizen’s perceptions of climate change and will serve as sites for testing new educational methods.

“Everyone should be conversant about climate change,” Ryan said. “It affects us every day in the most insidious of ways. This grant is all about education and trying to improve learning about climate change so that the public can connect all the dots and make sensible decisions that affect our future.”


Filed under:Arts and Sciences Research School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Geology  
Author: Mary Beth Erskine