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Improving Climate Change Educational Outcomes for First-year Students Through Multidisciplinary Instruction

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Environmental Engineering Division Technical Session 2: Innovative Approaches for Teaching Environmental Engineering

Tagged Division

Environmental Engineering

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Paper Authors


Joe Dallas Moore Carnegie Mellon University Orcid 16x16

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Joe teaches across the environmental engineering program at Carnegie Mellon University. He first taught high school science through Teach For America in Chicago Public Schools. He later earned his PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University with funding from an NSF GRFP, studying the interaction between engineered nanomaterials and bacteria.

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Turner Cotterman Carnegie Mellon University

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Turner Cotterman is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. His cross-disciplinary research explores technology transitions within the electricity sector and automotive industry. He significantly enjoyed co-teaching the Freshman Grand Challenge Seminar on Climate Change for two semesters. He completed his M.S. in Technology and Policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and B.S. in Electrical Engineering at Clemson University.

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James Wynn Carnegie Mellon University

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James Wynn is Associate Professor of English and Rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon University. His interests and research explore the intersections of rhetoric, science, mathematics, and public policy. He has published two books _Evolution by the Numbers_ (2012) and _Citizen Science in the Digital Age_ (2017) about these intersections. He has also been privileged to teach the Freshman Grand Challenge Seminar on Climate Change which helps students examine the rhetoric of climate change by exploring how scientists argue, how the media accommodates scientific writing for non-expert audiences, and how supporters and skeptics of anthropogenic climate change defend their claims and challenge their opponents.

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Tackling climate change is complicated, requiring engineering and technical solutions, economic resources, and collaborative international policymaking. It also requires rhetorical understanding to communicate the urgency to take action and to help communities agree collectively on appropriate and feasible solutions. Students enrolling in undergraduate academic programs today have grown up in a world where climate change impacts are increasingly visible and damaging. Still undergraduates at our institution do not enroll with a full understanding of the complexity and multidimensionality of climate change. They are inheriting a warming world, and they will be the ones charged with developing and implementing innovative responses. The question is to what extent and in what ways are these students prepared to participate in this grand challenge. In our work we will discuss our unique multidisciplinary approach to engaging first-year students in critical thinking about climate change. The vehicle for our engagement has been our Grand Challenges Freshman Seminar course, currently being offered for the fourth time. Integral to our success has been assembling an instructional team that reflects the diverse dimensions of climate change. Our team consists of a faculty member from environmental engineering, a scholar of Rhetoric from the English department, and a policy expert from Engineering and Public Policy. Our semester begins with a conversation on the nature of the scientific process and follow up with in-depth introductions to the rhetoric of the climate change debate, the economics of carbon emission reduction, fairness in global policy, energy systems, and the uncertainty of climate modeling. Our instructional strategies are similarly diverse. Students discuss topical readings before each class. The first half of each class consists of an extended, student-led in-person discussion. Classes culminate in a lecture with active-learning exercises. Assignments reinforce the transformative potential of individual impacts, cogent communication methods, and coordinated international responses. The combination of these strategies helps students master technical content, connect the dots among various disciplines, and offer opportunities for students with different learning abilities. To assess its efficacy, we surveyed students at the end of the course. Students reported increasing recognition of the multidisciplinarity of climate change. One student shared, “This course has taught me to view the climate change problem from multiple perspectives.” Another shared, “The most difficult part is the translation from a scientific consensus to a political consensus.” And another gained a greater appreciation for science itself, saying, “I used to think about science as fact or no fact, but now I think more of a consensus and building upon each other.” As a consequence of our efforts to engage first-year students in deep, critical thinking around climate change, students have demonstrated a more sophisticated understanding of the multifaceted nature of climate change and reported high satisfaction with the educational environment -- many have also opted to major in environmental engineering. We hope sharing our methods will empower colleagues to achieve similar results with their own students, helping them meet short-term educational goals and long-term goals of enabling these future leaders to tackle this most pressing issue.

Moore, J. D., & Cotterman, T., & Wynn, J. (2021, July), Improving Climate Change Educational Outcomes for First-year Students Through Multidisciplinary Instruction Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference.

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