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Research Team Sparks Community Conversations About Climate Change

Four researchers wearing business casual clothes pose for the camera on a bright blue sofa.
On a sunny afternoon last fall, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and educators from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History met with visitors of all ages at an open-house festival hosted at the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority.

The researchers and educators set up an “extreme weather kit” at one of the activity tables with a cityscape of Legos atop a slope leading to a mock river. 

“Look, mom! Legos!” said a little boy, immediately drawn to the table.

Mary Ann Steiner (EDUC ’16G), a research associate at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments (UPCLOSE), handed the boy a tiny watering can. He poured it over the Lego skyline. As water rushed down, little yellow and brown foam circles fell into the river, simulating runoff during heavy storms.

Steiner then motioned to different colored and shaped sponges sitting nearby—examples of rain barrels, permeable pavement and green roofs, which can help absorb water during intense rain events. The child and mother placed these sponges near the mock river and dumped water on the model city again. This time the green infrastructure soaked up the water, and the river was saved from sewage.

This simple Lego activity was meant to spark a conversation about climate change. Kevin Crowley, associate dean of the School of Education and co-director of UPCLOSE, said that moment encapsulates the power of informal learning. 

“The experience got them talking about climate change and what they can do differently in their home,” said Steiner. “We are interested in creating moments where people bump into science as they go about their lives. We want engagements and conversations about science to pop up as people go to festivals, museums and community events,” he said.  

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Those conversations are timelier than ever. According to a September 2019 study about Americans’ climate change beliefs, 60% of people in Allegheny County rarely or never discuss global warming. 

“People are noticing things in regard to climate change—they’re seeing things, experiencing it. But there’s a pressure, because of the polarization,” said Crowley. “There can be a social risk to talking about climate change in communities, and people feel that way in Pittsburgh.”

Sean Barill, a third-year anthropology major at Pitt, started working with the UPCLOSE team because he found their approach inspiring. 

“Instead of educating from the top down, like a professor giving a lecture to a class of students, this approach is really about learning from one another. There’s a direct line of communication between all parties involved,” said Barill. “This is a better approach to dealing with this issue of scale.” 

Keeping people engaged with their families and communities about issues that they can relate to is key, according to Karen Knutson, associate director of UPCLOSE.

“When you’re in your school-age years, it’s just a small portion of your life. Then when you’re out of school, it’s harder to figure out where you get new knowledge from and what to do with it,” said Knutson. “And so when you’re going to one of these activities with your family, with your friends, you go because you choose to do it or you’re being motivated to do it. It’s a pretty novel approach.”  

Rethinking the role of museums

With its partners, UPCLOSE just wrapped up a six-year project called Climate and Urban Systems Partnership (CUSP), a $5.9 million National Science Foundation grant co-led by Crowley and four major science museums in four cities, including Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. 

The UPCLOSE team led the learning sciences component of the project in each of the cities.  

Museums served at the center of learning networks, called educational hubs, and were joined by community partners such as the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association and Sustainable Pittsburgh.

Museums are rethinking their mission from being buildings ‘full of stuff’ to becoming catalysts to help people engage with science and nature in a variety of settings.

Kevin Crowley

Laurie Giarratani, director of education with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, said the hubs brought together a diverse group of professionals—educators, artists, scientists, businesspeople and community leaders who bring “different areas of expertise to the conversation”—and allowed them to network with one another to exchange ideas about climate change solutions.

Each hub organized out-of-the-classroom learning experiences, such as the storm water runoff demonstration, where residents came with their families and friends to help understand the impacts of climate change where they live. The goal was to get more residents involved in systemic change. 

And it worked.

“We saw that people got involved in advocacy by cleaning up trash or signing petitions. Others got involved in management issues, and some started to weave this into conversations in Boy Scouts and church groups,” said Crowley. “Changing a lightbulb or flying less often won’t create systemic change, but this can.”

Crowley and Giarratani said projects like CUSP are helping educators to rethink how the educational resources of museums are utilized.

“Museums are rethinking their mission from being buildings ‘full of stuff’ to becoming catalysts to help people engage with science and nature in a variety of settings,” said Crowley.

The project with the UPCLOSE team—which is an example of a research-practice partnership in which research and application happen in tandem in real-time—is helping the Carnegie Museum of Natural History reflect on its own process of learning. 

Giarratani said the museum is exploring ways to encourage the project’s network partners to see its resources, which include its science and education team members and its collections, as “not just a repository of information about the past, but as a resource that can help us understand our current situation and envision an actionable path for the future.” 

The museum and the University Pittsburgh will soon embark on a new project that, building on the model established with CUSP, will create climate change learning networks in rural Western Pennsylvania. 

In July 2019, the National Science Foundation awarded the University of Pittsburgh $800,000 and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History $1.3 million for the Climate and Rural Systems Partnership. They will work with the Mercer County Conservation District and Powdermill Nature Reserve to involve community organizations in networks in Pennsylvania’s Mercer and Westmoreland counties. 

UPCLOSE is in the early stages of engagement in these counties, using meetings, surveys and discussions with community organizations. According to Crowley, customization is key—because climate change isn’t a one-size-fits-all topic.

“We’re co-developing discussions of how we want to talk about climate change with each of these rural populations,” Crowley said.

The approach builds on work by environmental activists like Greta Thunberg, which is making climate change harder for people to ignore, he added.

“We’ve gotten really good at ignoring the issue and kicking the can down the road. We can’t do that anymore in Western Pennsylvania,” said Crowley. “There are water issues. We’ve had the wettest years on record lately. People like Greta Thunberg are making it less easy for people to conveniently forget that we need to deal with this right now. And to me, it feels like a real generational challenge.”