An educational challenge

Many of the debates in education are narrow and unimportant compared to the enormities of the challenges facing the planet and the potential future for humanity.

When will we stop listing the 50 best apps for something and consider the bigger questions? What is the best form of education for a planet that is finite, with a human population that is estimated to grow to over 9 billion by 2050? What lifestyle can future generations aspire to?

James  Lovelock ends ‘The Revenge of Gaia’ with an interesting educational challenge. More important than a MOOC?

What we need is a book of knowledge written so well as to constitute literature in its own right. Something for anyone interested in the state of the Earth and of us – a manual for living well and for survival. The quality of its writing must be such that it would serve for pleasure, for devotional reading, as a source of facts and even as a primary school text. It would range from simple things such as how to light a fire, to our place in the solar system and the universe. (more…)

Climate change education debate

Below is the transcript of a conversation I had with my incredibly precocious seven year old nephew. We were gathered for Easter lunch and he asked me about the debate surrounding the proposals for a slimmed down mention of climate change in the curriculum.

Peter: So, Uncle Jamie, tell me what all the fuss about this climate change education thing is.

Uncle Jamie: Well, Peter, there are plans afoot to give schools more flexibility to teach climate change in a way that suits them, and to reduce the explicit mention of how carbon dioxide affects the Earth system.

P: Hold on. Tell me more about this climate change malarkey.

UJ: Well, there is overwhelming evidence from a lot of scientists who say that by burning fossil fuels and various other things, that we are altering the behaviour of the climate system and that these changes could have catastrophic impacts on all life on the planet including humans.

P: Sounds bad. So what steps are being taken?

UJ: At the moment, we have decided to make the problem worse through basing our exit from this recession (we’ll have to leave that topic for another conversation) on greater growth and further exploitation of natural resources.

P: Are you telling me that, you are going to teach me that the world is completely up the creek in a few years’ time and adults have decided to make the problem worse and you want to tell seven year olds about this? That’s a bit of a downer.

UJ: I know, I know. There are a lot of people who feel that the best way of dealing with this issue is to tell you how bad it is and do nothing about it. Makes complete sense, no?

P: But I read all these articles in the newspaper. It reminds me of the Christmas pantomime. “Humans are causing irreversible climate change.” “Oh no they’re not!” “Oh yes they are!” I thought you were supposed to be the adults in this situation.

UJ: Yes. I can see how this might be confusing. There is an issue of natural variability and various other trends to take into consideration, but seeing as you’re seven, we think that the best thing to do is to teach you the “Oh yes they are” bit, and leave out the reasoning and the reasons why the “Oh no they’re not!” people aren’t right.

P: Still, it’s a bit of a downer, putting all this responsibility for saving the world on the shoulders of a seven year old.

UJ: I see. You may have a point there. What would your ideas for this be?

P: I think you have to consider three areas: rigour, agency and stewardship [I did say he was precocious]. I think that the best place to start would be stewardship, then agency and finally rigour.

UJ: Can you go into these three areas in a bit more depth?

P: Certainly. By stewardship, I mean the values and skills needed to look after the natural environment. This could be anything from planting and caring for a tree in the school grounds; monitoring a rock pool and cleaning up litter; or being a junior warden for a local park or wild place. I imagine that you’ve read the 2009 ‘Report by the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change’, that shows a clear correlation between developing a local and personal relationship with nature and engaging in broader environmental and climate issues later in life.

UJ: Gotcha.

P: Love not loss, Uncle Jamie. Love not loss. You have read the IUCN work on this haven’t you? I know it relates more to the protection of charismatic megafauna and their supporting habitats, but the psychology’s the same.

UJ: And agency?

P: Agency is important. As it stands, you people are advocating teaching about something without the ability to take action on what we have learnt. If there is something that makes complete sense to change, because it would be better for people and planet, and especially for future generations, then maybe we should start with small steps. I would like to work on a project when I am about 9 years old, investigating the use of resources in school. Pupils should be able to learn about the consequences of their actions. I am undecided whether this should include impacts on the Earth system yet. Maybe we could look at the Greek root of the word economy, i.e. to manage one’s household. Fossil fuels are unsustainable, waste costs money. These things are fairly obvious to anyone who can get their head round the fact we live on a finite planet.

UJ: And rigour?

P: I need a bit more time on this, but I would want some intelligent people to come up with a way to introduce me to the difference between short-term variability and long-term trends, the interconnectedness of the Earth system, how scientists predict, model and test theories, gather data, and the moral imperative of acting on science.

UJ: Morality and science?

P: It’s odd, isn’t it? What we are really arguing about here is using education as a tool to show young people that in the midst of doing sweet nothing about climate change, that action needs to be taken to mitigate an unholy, global balls-up in fifty years’ time.

UJ: Oops. Any suggestions?

P: In terms of engagement with current changes, there are a few questions you’ll need to answer:

  1. Will the current proposals weaken or remove opportunities for young people to develop a personal relationship with nature?
  2. Will the current proposals remove or weaken the opportunity for schools to offer agency to young people to act on what they learn?
  3. Are there sufficient opportunities for schools to teach with appropriate rigour the science (including geographical science) I need to understand to grow my appreciation of my local environment to the Earth system?

UJ: You’ve put this to schools, does government not have a role to play?

P: To a degree, but I’ve found that governments come and go. As long as they don’t prevent the appropriate teaching of these issues, it is up to wider society (schools, teachers, education experts, academics, child psychologists, naturalists, environmentalist, industry and commerce) to work out how best to teach young people about climate change. Words in the curriculum are perhaps the least of our worries.

Education blog: How can I calculate my footprint?

I have travelled from London to Sydney to join the Catlin Seaview Survey. It promises to be an amazing experience, learning more about the Great Barrier Reef and coral in general.

Over the next three weeks, I shall be visiting different parts of the reef and speaking to the science teams who are investigating the health of this ecosystem.

One of the areas of investigation is how climate change is affecting the reef and the damage that it can cause. Increased CO2 in the atmosphere affects coral reefs in three main ways:

  • warming oceans can cause ‘coral bleaching’ where the symbiotic relationship between coral and algae breaks down, so that the coral loses a major energy source and can die
  • climate change is also linked to increased storm activity that causes physical damage to the reef
  • more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the oceans, causing ocean acidification and adding to the stress on this fragile environment

It’s a difficult choice. Can I be of benefit to the reef by coming here and helping to communicate its wonders or stay at home and let others do this work?

Can you help in calculating my carbon footprint for this journey so far and if possible compare it to the average annual carbon footprint for the UK?

Here’s how I travelled…

7.5 miles by taxi from my house to Paddington Station

A total of 27 miles by train

10,673 miles by aeroplane from London to Sydney via Singapore

And the last (and nicest) leg by ferry to a part of Sydney called Manly – 7 miles

No Climate Change Education in our schools?

The debate around climate change in the science curriculum rages on in the press with a letter published in yesterday’s Guardian and signed by a number of educationalists.

This is response to the news that climate change is to be dropped from the national curriculum.

My immediate and emotive response to this is that the government has this wrong and must immediately change their policy and include climate change within the science curriculum.

Arctic Expedition on BBC

One of my roles on the Catlin Arctic Survey was to film for this documentary coming out on the BBC and Open University this week. It was quite nerve-wracking shooting my first film, with the added pressures of the Arctic environment and the fact that it is to be broadcast on the BBC. I haven’t seen it yet, and look forward to reliving the expedition through Victoria’s eyes.

Broadcast details
This weekend Dr Victoria Hill presents a BBC Earth Reporters documentary about the Catlin Arctic Survey. The programme screens on BBC World (02:30 & 09:30 28/5 or 15:30 & 21:30 29/5). If you’re unable to watch BBC World TV, you can view the programme from the Open University website from this Friday.

On Cold (Arctic blog)

‘How cold is cold?’ I asked. I felt a bit stupid. Simon, the Ice Base Manager was giving me a briefing in the sitting room of his house in late February. I had never been to the Arctic before and had no idea what to expect.

We went for a walk after lunch. The air was damp and heavy. It crawled in between my jacket and fleece, the heavy, clinging, damp cold of England. It must have been 5°C.

Simon was a polar veteran. I tried not to shiver in the relative mild.

The temperature at the Ice Base was likely to be between about -35°C, rising to about -20°C towards the end of April. I had no idea what these figures meant. Is -35°C twice as cold, three times as cold, ten times as cold? These numbers were abstract and extreme in equal measure. They accompanied me on shopping trips to buy thermal leggings and fleece jackets and entertained friends in pubs at weekends.

I am now in Resolute, one of the coldest inhabited places in the world, waiting for a flight to the Ice Base. The cold here is a sharp and dry cold that is, at first, a comfortable contrast to the stuffy and claustrophobic warmth of the hotel.

As I stretch outside, the first sensation is a stiffening brittleness in my nose as the damp exhalation freezes. Then my beard starts to feel waxy. Nose and cheeks are pinched and sting. It is -40°C, yet I do not feel cold. Ears if uncovered give off a sharp ache. The fabric on my gloves hardens. Each layer of clothing is like a piece of armour, a defence.

It is a battle to see how far the cold can penetrate from the outside and how well my body can warm from the inside. I feel cocksure wandering around town, confident that the extra chips and chocolate cake will fuel me in this fight. To battle the cold, you need energy.

If I were in London, I would be eating 2,000 calories a day to lead a normal working life. Here, I need to eat 5,000 calories a day. 3,000 calories just to fuel my body to stay warm, like feeding an extra me. On an expedition, pulling a sled, polar explorers will be consuming three times as many calories as recommended by your doctor and losing weight.

Even with the food and thermals, I feel like an invisible sprite has a frozen set of tongs and presses them to any patch of exposed flesh.
It is not colder in the Arctic. It is a different cold. Not malicious but lethal for the unwary. Do not think in terms of degrees. Imagine that the cold here is not a temperature but an animal or ice spirit, a polar djinn if you will, trying to find a way in, trying to find a weakness, biting, clawing, burning.

The team at the Ice Base put their idea of cold into words. This is what they came up with.

On Copepods (Arctic Blog)

Ceri thinks copepods are cool. I didn’t know what a copepod was. I hadn’t even heard of them before I met Ceri.

We met at Heathrow airport on the way to join the Catlin Arctic Survey and compared choices of bad films on the flight to Ottawa.

Dr Ceri Lewis of the University of Exeter drew a picture of a copepod for me on the paper table cloth of Montana’s in pink crayon. It looked like an elongated marine wood louse. (more…)

On Wonder (Arctic blog)

I like hotel rooms filled with kit. They speak of independence.

I spread out in a spacious room on the fifth floor of the Southway Inn in Ottawa. Strip malls and apartment blocks spread through scrubby woods, five minutes drive from the airport. Tanning salons, hardware stores, petrol pumps and fast food. Tucsons, the local bar across the street offers drinks and dancing with live music on Saturdays and Wednesdays. It was Thursday.

Somewhere between the anonymity and dullness of the ringroad hotel, there is a freedom. I look down at the three kit bags lying on the patterned carpet. Down jackets, rugged weather proof computers, adaptors, tape, kit, thermals, bandages, medicine, back-ups, independence. This is the thrill: knowing that I have everything I need and nothing more. (more…)

On Certainty (Arctic blog)

The expedition to the Arctic has plunged me back into the world of science. Friends have enquired about what the expedition will be doing. The research focuses are on ocean acidification and thermohaline circulation. I understand these concepts little and look forward to learning more from the science research team.

Research on thermohaline circulation concerns the health of the world’s ocean currents. If these currents break down, it could have quite different impacts on the climate to those that we might be expecting.

I found it easier to understand in terms of property development. Where should I buy a house which would be future proof from the point of view of the changing climate? The answer isn’t as simple as I had hoped. Depending on which climate model or theory you listen to, it could be anywhere between the Canary Islands and Ullapool. (more…)

On Curiosity (Arctic blog)

In childhood we ask: ‘Why is there good and evil?’ ‘How does nature work?’ ‘Why am I me?’ If circumstances and temperament allow, we then build on these questions during adulthood, our curiosity encompasses more and more of the world until, at one point, we may reach that elusive stage where we are bored by nothing. The blunt large questions become connected to smaller, apparently esoteric ones. We end up wondering about flies on the sides of mountains or about a particular fresco on the wall of a sixteenth-century palace. We start to care about the foreign policy of a long-dead Iberian monarch or about the role of pear in the Thirty Years War.

from ‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain De Botton

‘I’m going here.’ I pointed to an island in the Arctic.

‘Are you excited?’ (more…)

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.