Why—and How—to Teach Climate Change

Students may feel a sense of hopelessness if the course doesn’t include positive actions students can take.
How and Why to Teach Climate Change

MANY MANAGEMENT PROFESSORS discuss climate change in their classrooms because they believe it will impact business decisions for decades to come. (For more on this topic, see “Carbon Cutters.") But is it beneficial to teach college students about the causes and effects of climate change? To find out, three professors at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor surveyed nearly 400 students over two semesters in a large biology course to measure changes in their attitudes about climate change.

The research was conducted by Meghan Duffy, a professor in the ecology and evolutionary biology department; J.W. Hammond, a graduate student instructor at the U-M School of Education; and Susan Cheng, a data analytics and course assessment consultant at the U-M Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. They found that 98 percent of students in the class believed that climate change was a problem—but while the students became more convinced that climate change was real, they also became more fearful that nothing would be done about it.

The trio found that, by the time the class was over, the percentage of students who were “very sure” about the dangers of climate change rose from 44 percent to 70 percent. The percentage of those who saw humans as the primary cause of climate change went from 69 percent to 92 percent. At the beginning of the course, only 33 percent of students recognized that climate change is impacting people now. By the end, 63 percent said it is a problem now, 8 percent thought it would not be a concern for 51 to 100 years, and 2 percent thought it would not be a concern for 100 years or more.

But the researchers also found that students expressed a greater sense of hopelessness about climate change. Ninety-three percent were either unsure whether humans would take meaningful action in response to climate change or they were absolutely certain they would not. Only 4 percent thought humans would successfully address the problem. One student even reported a panic attack about the issue mid-lecture.

The researchers have been considering what approach to take when teaching the subject. Duffy and her colleagues suggest that instructors first assess what students know about the topic; then, focus on the “bright spots,” or the things that have already been done to combat the problem; then, reframe the issue to focus on what can be gained in the fight, rather than fixating on what could be lost; and finally, design course activities that provide realistic roles for students to take in achieving climate change solutions.