Despite our best intentions, pre-college school systems nationwide continue to graduate successive cohorts who harbor, express, and obdurately defend deeply held misconceptions not only about the basic processes of climate change science, but also about the kinds of evidence-based thinking that led to constructing this knowledge to begin with — many students’ views of science emerge from flawed scientific epistemologies. Moreover, we now stand at tipping points not only regarding our global ecological systems but also in our collective capacity for global ecological thinking. My contribution to the solution is to use methods of practitioner research, or “scientific teaching,” to better understand how my teaching (curriculum and instruction) causes my students’ acquisition of ecological concepts, scientific epistemology, and ecological thinking. Firstly, I describe aspects of the plan and practice of practitioner research and its relationship to a larger view from “backwards design.” Next, I describe examples of my use of these methods in teaching foundational concepts necessary to understand climate change: (1) Hydrogen Economy of Nature (teaching by analogy how chloroplasts and mitochondria function similarly to hydrogen fuel cells), (2) Bioenergetics and Mass Balance (following the carbon mass gain in photosynthesis and loss during combustion/ metabolism), and (3) Scientific Epistemology.
Multi-year data from my majors’ intro biology course show significant gains in my students’ understanding of (1) cellular energetics due to infusing engaging activities in sustainability science into the curriculum (such as teaching hydrogen and electron flow in fuel cells and mitochondria and showing that we are all in fact hydrogen powered vehicles), (2) mass flow of carbon through organisms (e.g., by measuring mass loss in a nut while it is burning on an analytical balance), but to a lesser extent at larger scales such as the global carbon cycle, and (3) simpler measures of scientific thinking. However, major challenges remain for me to engineer meaningful gains in evidence-based thinking needed to understand ill-structured problems, concepts underlying climate change, and viable and ethical scenarios of cultural adaptation. Lastly, I conclude with an outline of a learning progression to help faculty adapt practitioner research methods using backwards design in their own courses to improve their students’ learning. For me, I get excited by the research process, and I find myself much more engaged in curiosity-driven evidence-based discovery science abut the effects of my teaching on my students’ learning. I enjoin that you will, too.