Dr. Lin Chambers is Project Scientist in the Innovations in Global Climate Change Education program. The congressionally mandated project, initiated in 2008, awards grants to institutions that educate communities about climate science. The group develops resources to help others better understand and explain the causes and effects of climate change.
NASA Tech Briefs: What is the Innovations in Global Climate Change Education Project?
Dr. Lin Chambers: This is a project that NASA initiated in 2008. For three years, we’ve been operating as a congressionally mandated project in global climate change education. This year we became the Innovations in Global Climate Change Education [previously known as the Global Climate Change Education (GCCE) Initiative] as part of the NASA budget, under the Minority University Research and Education Program. Overall, we’re trying to achieve two major things with this project: climate literacy in the broad public, including students, and preparing people for employment in fields that relate to climate and climate change.
NTB: What is your specific role as Project Scientist?
Dr. Chambers: Basically all the funding that we had was put out in the form of grants or property agreements to universities, nonprofit organizations, and school districts. So I provide the sort of direction, the focus for that solicitation, and then try to ensure in the review process that we are making effective use of NASA content in the project. That’s obviously the whole point for NASA funding: to get some of the NASA information out there in these projects.
NTB: How does the award/project process work?
Dr. Chambers: Starting this year, proposers are one of 4 types: minority serving institutions (HBCUs, HSIs, and tribal colleges), community colleges, school districts, and non-profit organizations serving minority communities. In previous years, majority education institutions could also apply. All projects are focused on climate change education, so they all must include some aspect of NASA climate science, whether it’s using NASA data, models, simulations, and resources. We do not expect them to break new ground in climate science, but to make progress on educating various communities about what we already know about climate science.
Our projects address climate science education in a variety of ways. Some focus on undergraduates, and may develop new courses for them, or involve them in research experiences. Some focus on teachers and do professional development workshops or research experiences for them. Some focus on K-12 students.
NTB: What do you think needs to be done the most to improve climate science education, and what are the effective ways that you’ve seen of teaching the public?
Dr. Chambers: I don’t know have any kind of definitive answer, but I think that one thing is just to have climate science education. As I mentioned, a lot of people learn about the weather when they’re in elementary school, and that’s basically it. They don’t even get exposed to the concept of climate. So we have currently 57 projects, with another 14 about to start, that are trying different approaches to this.
I would say that we haven’t come to any conclusions, really none of our projects are done, but some of the things that we’ve seen so far that seem to work are projects that really leverage local projects and local connections. So going back, looking at the history of your own area. We’ve had some projects that interview elders, and people who’ve been in that area for 20-30 years or more, and can give their perspective of what may have changed. That’s one approach. There are probably lots of other approaches, and hopefully in the next couple of years, we’ll know a little bit more about good ones.
NTB: I saw that you studied to be an engineer and then became a NASA scientist. Can you talk a bit about how that shift came about?
Dr. Chambers: I spent about ten years working in spacecraft analysis. My dissertation was in the area of non-equilibrium radiative transfer, for vehicles in training the atmosphere of Earth or Mars. A few years after I finished that, in the mid-90s, there were no missions going on at all. There was a little local advertisement in the NASA Langley internal newsletter that one of the earth science missions was looking for people. Their primary area was radiative transfer. I came over looking to do a one-year, “broadening my horizons” kind of a detail, and I’ve never gone back.
NTB: What are some of the common climate change misconceptions?
Dr. Chambers: The one that probably causes the most problems is that people don’t understand that “weather” and “climate” are not the same thing. We all understand weather, and most of us have learned some things about weather in school. Most of us have learned little or nothing about climate in school. We tend to take that personal experience with weather and apply it to climate, and that causes a lot of misconceptions and wrong conclusions.
NTB: So what are you emphasizing? Where are these gaps, and what do you need to keep emphasizing over and over again, as far as what climate is?
Dr. Chambers: One of the big issues recently is that general science has not been a high priority for education. There’s been all the influence and standardizing on reading and math. Science education as a whole is kind of getting a short shrift, I would say, which means that when you’re trying to make a scientific argument, a lot of people really don’t have the tools they need to understand it.
Bob O’Connor at the [National Science Foundation] NSF gave a talk at a workshop I attended a few weeks ago. What he described, that really resonated with me, is that our investigation and understanding of climate change should be thought of as a jigsaw puzzle, where different scientists in different fields are turning over various pieces and putting that picture together, as opposed to, I think, the mental model that a lot of people have of science as a house of cards: If you find one mistake, if you pull out one card, the whole thing falls down. Getting across how science works and the different pieces that go into our understanding is key.
NTB: Why is climate science, in particular, such a challenging subject to teach, do you think?
Dr. Chambers: I think it’s one of the most multi-disciplinary science areas. Basically any person who’s studying any aspect of the earth – whether it’s the atmosphere, the oceans, vegetation, agriculture, ice sheets – all of it has a piece of the puzzle. If you take any particular climate scientist, they most likely will know a lot about their particular aspect, but they won’t know much or even anything about some of the other areas. So trying to ask the public or a student to have some understanding across that whole spectrum, and finding a teacher who can teach it, is a big challenge.
NTB: What has the response from teachers been?
Dr. Chambers: Just looking at individual reports, I think that teachers really appreciate having the time to look across the different areas of climate science, learn the content so they can teach better, and be treated as colleagues by the scientists as experts in their own right.
NTB: How important are partnerships? Who do you need to partner with to successfully carry out education initiatives?
Dr. Chambers: For this particular issue, we need to partner with anybody and everybody that we can. More than we have, more than we probably can even do. As I mentioned, we have projects with universities, nonprofits, school systems, community colleges, so we’re really trying to get out in as many as we can, and find the people that have the ideas that will work.
NTB: What have been the biggest factors contributing to climate change?
Dr. Chambers: The biggest factor is greenhouse gas emissions, and that’s mostly Co2 and also methane. That’s from burning fossil fuels in cars, in factories, in trucks, in ships, you name it. About 20-25 percent of the issue comes from the deforestation and land use change, where we’re taking carbon that has been sitting in trees for 100s of years, burning it, and letting it back into the atmosphere.
NTB: Has NASA research produced evidence of global warming?
Dr. Chambers: We’ve produced several pieces of the puzzle. One thing that NASA does that really isn’t possible otherwise is to give you a global picture of the ice cover of the earth. NASA has several satellites that orbit over the poles in the entire planet multiple times a day. Before that happened, there was really no way to track ice cover on a global basis. That’s a key contribution. We also have a series of instruments that I actually started working on that are measuring the energy flows in and out of the planet. That information is just on the cusp of really being able to give us climate information. You really have to make those measurements for 15-plus years before you can really pull the information for climate change out of the variations of weather.
NTB: What is your best way of addressing climate change skeptics?
Dr. Chambers: I wish I knew. It’s an ongoing issue, and it’s something that requires a lot of different approaches. There are different kinds of climate skeptics. As a scientist, our tendency is to rely on the data and the information, and we put it out there, and obviously the conclusion should be clear to anyone, but that’s not how it works. We have a joint principal investigators meeting this spring at NSF. NSF, in particular, is beginning to look at some of the social science aspects of this, and what are the other dimensions of communication that scientists don’t typically use, having to do with emotions, values, humor, and a whole range of other things…If we had the answer to that, in my personal opinion, there wouldn’t be climate change skeptics, because the evidence is pretty strong.
NTB: Are political challenges an obstacle?
Dr. Chambers: It hasn’t affected us yet, in terms of the project. But it is definitely an obstacle in terms of getting the information out, and unfortunately in the US, more so than any other country, this issue has really become a partisan issue. It’s happened in the last 10 or 15 years. Before that, it really wasn’t a partisan issue.
NTB: What’s your day-to-day work and daily responsibilities?
Dr. Chambers: There are two flavors of things. Since this is a competitive opportunity, we’ve been putting out a solicitation on a shorter than annual basis in the last few years, because we’re trying to get caught up to the fiscal year cycle that we should be on. That’s a major issue: writing solicitations, hearing proposals, and making awards.
The other big piece of the job is to basically create a community. What we really didn’t want to do was to give 22 awards and have 22 islands out there working independently from each other. We spend a lot of time making connections with the projects, across the projects, making sure that all of our awardees are at least aware of what each other is doing, and in many cases can actually leverage what each other is doing. That’s why we have the annual PI meeting where we get together in person, and we also have a monthly webinar telecom where we have a couple of projects present each month.
NTB: What is the most satisfying part of your job?
Dr. Chambers: In the short term, it would be making people happy, because they won their award for their proposal. We just announced this year’s awards, so that’s fresh on my mind. In the longer term, the idea that we are having some impact in helping people understand this really important issue is probably what keeps us going.
NTB: Any information you can tell us about the most recent projects and awards?
Dr. Chambers: We’re awarding 14 new awards, and they’re in 10 different states. They’re mostly universities. There are a few nonprofit organizations. There’s one community college that’s being awarded. All of them are minority serving institutions. They’re going to be doing a range of projects, working at the K-12 level, working with teachers, and working with undergraduate students.
To download this interview as a podcast, click here .