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Critical Climate Awareness: Re-imagining Climate Change Teaching and Learning

  • Author(s): Clark, Heather Freeman
  • Advisor(s): Sandoval, William
  • et al.

The objective of this dissertation was to design and study a transformative model of climate change education that foregrounded sociopolitical processes and was socially relevant to Black and Latinx urban high school students. The intervention was implemented at the Mann-UCLA Community School in South Los Angeles while distance learning was mandated by the COVID-19 pandemic and was part of a research-practice partnership with a chemistry teacher. Using the Participatory Design Research methodology, I designed the learning context and documented how this instructional model structured classroom engagement and supported the outcomes of learning climate science and developing critical climate awareness. A mixed methods approach was used for analysis of data including pre/post assessments of climate science knowledge and climate concern, formative assessments of critical awareness of climate change, classroom artifacts, classroom observations, and interviews with focal students. Findings on classroom engagement, organized with the Connective and Productive Disciplinary Engagement framework, show that organizing instruction around the sociopolitical dimensions of climate change was productive. Participation was structured around students’ critical awareness of social issues in their community and their imagined futures when they could participate in the transition to low-emission energy sources. Student engagement embodied the four principles of Connective and Productive Disciplinary Engagement more strongly over time as they grappled with authentic problems of climate change in their community. The sociopolitical framing of climate change was also productive for learning climate science concepts and developing students’ critical climate awareness. Findings show a statistically significant improvement in students’ understanding of canonical scientific concepts and a shift towards awareness of and concern about climate change. Performance on formative assessments shows students made progress in explaining critical aspects of climate change, specifically in ascribing agency for causes and solutions. The significance of these findings is that centering sociopolitical, local dimensions of climate change does not diminish canonical, standard-aligned learning opportunities. Foregrounding social justice and inviting students’ critical awareness into the science classroom as a sense-making resource supported many students in developing sophisticated explanations of climate change in their community. This research contributes an approach to climate change instruction that advances culturally-relevant, justice-centered science pedagogy.

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