95th ESA Annual Meeting (August 1 -- 6, 2010)

SYMP 2 -6 - Examining the relationship between student understanding of and belief in climate change

Monday, August 2, 2010: 4:15 PM
403-405, David L Lawrence Convention Center
Amy Arnett, Center for Biodiversity, Unity College, Unity, ME, Casey J. Huckins, Department of Biological Sciences, Michigan Technological University, Houghton, MI and Holly A. Petrillo, College of Natural Resources, University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point, Stevens Point, WI

Global climate change is widely accepted by the scientific community as a documented phenomenon and a matter of urgent concern, action, and study. Evidence for, and mechanisms of, climate change are commonly taught in biology and ecology courses, and discussed in the public media worldwide. One underlying objective of teaching about this topic is to help establish a citizenry that is knowledgeable of both the science and the policies necessary to help slow the effects of climate change. We were interested in asking: How successfully is climate change taught in undergraduate college courses? Is a student’s “belief” in or perception of climate change linked to their understanding of the mechanisms driving climate change? Also, are these linkages related to a student’s demographics, specifically their major of study and geographic region? To answer these questions, undergraduate students enrolled in General Ecology courses during the fall of 2008 and 2009 at Unity College in Maine, Michigan Technological University, and University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, voluntarily agreed to complete a survey about their beliefs and understanding of climate change. Students also concurrently completed a content quiz based on Diagnostic Question Clusters (DQCs) developed by researchers at Michigan State on knowledge of climate change mechanisms. For our analysis, we conducted a one-way ANOVA to determine if student answers to the “belief” survey (4 possible answers) differed by their average score on the DQCs. We performed a contingency analysis to find associations between the student “belief” survey answers among the three schools and declared major.


For both years, we found that students who “believe” in climate change performed significantly better on the DQCs. We also found some differences between college and student major in both understanding and belief, but these were not significant. This study suggests that students do not have to fully understand the mechanisms of climate change to believe strongly that it is a real phenomenon. Yet, scores on the DQCs decreased as belief in climate change decreased, suggesting that as student understanding of climate change increases, these highest scoring students are more likely to believe in climate change.  We are aware that students are being educated in global climate issues and carbon cycles prior to entering our classes, yet continued research and education is warranted to reveal and correct student misconceptions, and enhance understanding of the reality of global climate change and the driving mechanisms.