NSF awards 4-year grant to interim UMass Boston SFE Dean for climate change education

School for the Environment Interim Dean Bob Chen has put ostriches on the MBTA to tell people about climate change, and he’s let kids do the talking through their artwork on the T. Last month the National Science Foundation awarded a four-year, $3 million grant to Chen, Jill H. Lohmeier of UMass Lowell, and Steven Schrock of the University of Kansas to create a climate change education model that can be replicated all over the country, and even internationally. UMass Boston’s portion of the grant is $1,404,452.

“We feel that there’s a lot of concepts about climate change that are difficult for the public to understand,” Chen said. “It’s long-term, it’s complex, there’s uncertainly based around it. And we’re not the only ones that are thinking about how to explain, teach, engage the public, especially the adult public, on climate change issues.”

The project is called Collaborative Research: Cool Science: Art as a Vehicle for Intergenerational Learning. It builds upon the idea that the former director of science education of UMass Lowell, the late David Lustick, had—that children can engage other children on science and technology topics through their art. Chen is the “science guy” on the project.

“The hypothesis is that if the kids are telling you about something, you might listen and learn better, and if they’re telling you to do something, you might do it. [And] to engage the kids as empowered teachers will get them to learn better themselves,” Chen said.

Local Boys & Girls Clubs, museums, and other community partners will get a curriculum, materials, and a small stipend to conduct one-day informal art and science workshops as part of the project. There will be 20 mentors and 200 student artists in each region, but others can also upload submissions to coolscience.net.

Six artists will have their work featured on buses in the Merrimack Valley, Worcester, Kansas City, and Topeka over the course of a month. The bus posters will include an artist’s statement and a QR code connected to additional information. UMass Boston, UMass Lowell, and University of Kansas student evaluators will stand at bus stops before and after the advertising campaign to see what, if anything, adults learn through the student art. Chen is partnering with Schrock, the director of the University of Kansas Transportation Center, to show the climate change message is one that can be shown, taught, and understood even in landlocked areas.

“The fundamental understanding is the fundamental understanding—we can teach science anywhere—but there may be regional contexts near the ocean, on the land,” Chen said. “We have different jobs here than there. We have a different cultural, societal context, a discussion in the newspaper, events, political contexts, all of those things are different, and so how can we compare the regional learning in Massachusetts versus Kansas, and that’s a really interesting goal.”

There will also be a celebration event at the end of the campaign where students are invited to express their views on climate change in other ways.

“It could be a poetry reading, it could be a dance, it could be a sculpture,” Chen said. “We’ll get town managers and parents and sort of have a celebration of an understanding of extreme weather events and how they impact us and what the solutions are.”