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How to Overcome Climate Change Misperceptions in the Classroom

By Sharon Chen
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A new study sheds light on the ways that undergraduates think about climate change, and how higher education leaders can combat these misperceptions to effect action. 

Joanna Huxster, a professor at St. Joseph’s University, found that unsurprisingly, science majors had more knowledge about the causes of climate change, while those involved with environmental groups had a deeper awareness about the consequences of climate change, and obstacles to action. Non-science major students, and those not involved with environmental groups – the majority of the student body at most universities – lacked a core understanding of climate change and its issues.

While these findings are not surprising, what is surprising is that according to Huxster, when it comes to climate change “’the average student who is not studying science doesn't have a better understanding than the average person 20 years ago.’” Public understanding of climate change has not kept up with significant scientific advancements in the field.

To combat this disconnect, Huxster believes that educational programs at universities need to design climate change education to appeal to a broader base of students. Students who are not science majors, or who are not pursuing careers in science, are nonetheless voters, consumers, and citizens of our world who will make decisions that affect our environmental wellbeing. Broadening the scope of climate change curriculum could mean focusing less on the science of climate change, and more on the ways that our actions affect our environment.

New study examines undergraduate understanding and misconceptions of climate change

Caren Fitzgerald and Karen Roberts | | July 1, 2015

The human brain is a factory—new perceptions and experiences are passed along a mental assembly line, shaped by prior knowledge and molded and connected to form conclusions, which then drive actions. This conveyor-belt shaping and molding is known as a mental model.

People use mental models to form everyday decisions, both large and small. A person decides to flip a switch because he knows it will produce light; an athlete takes a drink because she understands that it will solve her thirst.

But what if the problem that needs to be solved is bigger and more difficult to understand? How can people understand, process and take action to solve a problem for which their brains may not have an accurate model?

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