What happens when you open the world of science to children? This week, we highlight the efforts of a UC Center for Public Engagement with Science affiliate Dr. Carlie Trott, who told us about her work with K-12 students. Dr. Trott has ongoing projects with youth in multiple communities that address sustainability, climate change, and climate justice. She partners with community groups to engage children in science, incorporating the arts and letting the children’s interests drive the direction that each program takes.
Dr. Trott’s first project was with 10-12-year-old students in partnership with three local Boys and Girls Clubs in Colorado during her PhD program. The children signed up for the program voluntarily, and started by learning about science, but ultimately began planting trees and a community garden. They also advocated for action to be taken on climate change in their own communities as an event. Historic fires, droughts, and floods were happening in their region in the years leading up to the program, and the children made the connection between the science they were learning and its impact on their lives. Climate change was not just an abstract idea; it was happening around them, and they could see it in their daily lives. The air smelled like a campfire, and the air quality impacted whether they could go outside. Because of this, climate science turned out to be the connection that built bridges to make science more approachable (Trott & Weinberg, 2020). Trott’s contact at the Boys and Girls Clubs indicated that the students were more excited about their projects than they had been about any other program, maybe except for sports.
The same events that helped her students connect to science inspired Dr. Trott’s future efforts. Previously, she had been working on a project understanding women’s experiences in atmospheric science. She had already been inspired by climate science and diversity research. But when historic environmental tragedies occurred during her Ph. D program, and it became clear that fires, hurricanes, and droughts were getting progressively worse and would impact some of the most impoverished communities first, Dr. Trott wanted to use her work to make a change.
Dr. Trott’s later projects have built on the concepts she used at the Boys and Girls Clubs, incorporating art, science, and students’ passions. Community groups began reaching out to her after that project about spearheading similar projects elsewhere. In Jacmel, Haiti, Jakmel Ekspresyon (JE) Arts Center worked with her to set up a course in arts and sciences that is currently on its third cycle. Part of this program has students take pictures and measure water quality, and help their community learn which water sources are safe to use. Their students are also advocating for improvements to infrastructure to better provide safe water, as well as helping educate their community about how to be safe in the current situation. Because their passion is obvious to the adults in their communities, the messages that students in these programs decide to advocate for are generally well received and their efforts are supported. Similarly, Dr. Trott is collaborating with a disaster organization in Thailand that is preparing to train schoolteachers to run a program similar to the one in Colorado. After learning about climate change, students will be encouraged to connect what they have learned to real life through photography, and then build and design ways to influence their communities. Because she publishes in open access journals whenever possible, similar groups learned about her work and have reached out about doing the same in Kenya, the Philippines, England, and here in Cincinnati. She is part of a grant submitted to NSF to start her “Science, Camera, Action!” program here, where students observe and photograph their world and design ways to address a problem they see.
When the pandemic ends, Dr. Trott plans to travel to where other programs are ongoing. She will assess their success by surveying students before and after they start, as well as holding “focus groups,” talking to the students about their experiences as a group. She learns more from what they say in response to open-ended questions than close-ended survey items because the young people lead the conversation. Sometimes, she is surprised by what they leave the program with. One group told her that they were upset that adults were not actively trying to make the changes that they had started advocating for. Even though this was not the message that Dr. Trott had intended to teach them, the interaction of the science they were learning with their lives when they went home each day led to their own ideas.
Dr. Trott also plans to start interviewing youth climate advocates for a new study, especially those fighting for climate justice. They want to help the countries that are being impacted the worst, despite contributing the least to the problems and lacking the resources to adapt easily. In the last few years, we have seen more youth taking ownership of issues and speaking up for change for their futures. Children care, they see what is at stake, and they are not distracted by the same priorities and issues that adults are. Dr. Trott hopes to better understand where these youth are becoming aware of these issues, and what has led to them becoming increasingly active.
Dr. Trott hopes that, by introducing students to topics that may not otherwise be discussed until later in their science classrooms, she will capture their curiosity as well as their desire to do something and encourage some of them to ultimately pursue science as a career. She has found that when students’ passions drive their projects, they are motivated to get involved. Around 4th to 6th grade, to the surprise of many adults, students are able to understand emotionally and intellectually challenging topics such as climate change. This is about the age that children develop the ability to think more abstractly. Rather than becoming overwhelmed and disheartened, they are in a stage of life where they want to help. And by introducing them to these topics early, we can prevent them from feeling hopeless as they learn more. In addition to exposing them to science, students are empowered with coping strategies before becoming teenagers.
Dr. Trott’s work to expose students to science and art encourages curiosity, action, and hope. Young students have the passion to act and the ability to understand the problems that they see around them. By understanding their perception of the world and further empowering them to act, we give them the opportunity to reshape their communities, to hope because they know they can drive change, and to create their futures.