Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Science of Climate Change - A Review

When I was given the opportunity to review Blair Lee's The Science of Climate Change: A Hands-On Course I jumped at the chance, even though Miss 16 is on the older side for for this course. Why? One reason is the author herself. Blair is a qualified scientist, has taught at the college level and is a homeschooling parent. So she definitely knows her science (not all science courses are written or checked by people with a science qualification) and she knows the reality of homeschooling (no trying to adapt classroom activities and instruction for a home setting with just one student). Plus, we were already familiar with the quality of Blair's work, since Miss 16 used RSO Biology 2, which Blair wrote, back in 2014. The other reason is the topic itself. Climate change is such an important issue for everyone since it is affecting the world we live in right now, but it is especially important for someone like Miss 16 whose future plans are likely to involve studying and working in the fields of zoology, ecology or conservation. While we've read and talked about climate change Miss 16 has never formally or systematically studied it. This course was the perfect way to remedy this deficiency.

The Science of Climate Change is a short (the meat of the book is just 60 pages) but thorough course divided into four sections - 1.The Greenhouse Effect, 2.Global Warming, 3.Climate Change, and 4.What Can Be Done To Help?. We opted to complete each section in one session per week, but had I been using it with younger kids I would have opted for several shorter sessions per week. The format is easy to use. There's just one book with everything you need in it - text, answers and a supply list (most of it is common stuff you probably already have or is easy to find; I needed a packet of Kool Aid and some effervescent tablets but if you don't already have a thermometer you'll need to buy a couple). You simply open the book, read the text,  pause your reading to do the activities as they occur, then resume reading.

Overall, I was really impressed with this course. It did an excellent job of clearly, calmly and concisely laying out the facts relating to climate change in a systematic and logical fashion. The tone was conversational, perfectly pitched for the 8-13 year old group which I see as the target age range for the course, but not too young or babyish for older teens - or their parents! (If you've got younger kids I'm sure they'd be happy to join in for most of the work but there are some activities you might want to modify - I'd probably compile the 30 years of weather data for them or use the example that is in the appendix  and be prepared to help out with the analysis - or simply let them skip altogether). The text was well supported by illustrations, including plenty of diagrams illustrating and reinforcing what was in the text. The most important parts of the text are bolded, underlined or set apart in a box, so the parent can be sure to emphasize them. The full page illustrations at the end of each section are especially good at summarizing the key points of the section. Visual learners will surely appreciate all the diagrams and other illustrations, but if you have a child who is distracted by lots of colour and plenty of visuals they may find some pages a little "busy" -  you might want to read aloud to them and just show them the diagrams as needed.

Graphing the Concentration of Carbon Dioxide

One of the aspects I was most impressed with was the truly interactive nature of this course. So often science books involve reading a section, answering some comprehension questions and then completing an experiment. And courses that are touted as interactive often include many features that are simply gimmicky or busywork. Not this course. The text and activities are totally integrated and the activities seem designed to get the student interacting with the material in a meaningful and memorable way. Colouring pages can be just time fillers or busy work, but here the student colours part of the ocean around Greenland plus a graph showing the amount of certain products that can be made from recycled or unrecycled material using the same amount of energy. This is colouring with a purpose, designed to emphasize how much of the area used to be sea ice and the advantages of recycling. After reading about the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases students are asked to complete graphs showing concentrations of specific gases. There are two versions of this activity, a great way of catering for students of differing ages and abilities. Students learn about feedback loops then construct one of their own, read about how the fast rate of climate change makes it difficult for  for organisms to adapt then take part in a simple but fun activity (rolling a tennis ball/trying to avoid a rolling tennis ball) designed to model the principle that it is hard to avoid a fast moving event,  and read about radiation then observe it for themselves by putting a sheet of black paper in the sun. They also read about the increase in manufactured goods and the trend for food to be consumed a long way from where it is produced then check  their own home and supermarket for evidence of this. They don't just read about changes in weather over time; they gather and analyse weather data from their own area (not being in the US I thought we might need to pick an American city to call home in order to complete this activity, so I was happy to discover that the recommended website includes data from our city ). None of the activities are complicated, but they are varied, well integrated in the text and designed to reinforce it's key messages.

Another aspect of this course that impressed me is the way that aspects of the practice and methodology of science are woven into the content. Scientists use maths and the course includes simple calculations plus a brief introduction to scientific notation as well as practice using it. Sheets for experiments get the student to form a hypothesis, accurately record their observations, then provide questions to guide them towards appropriate and meaningful conclusions. One experiment, investigating the effect of water temperature on the solubility of carbon dioxide had the students collect data from three trials not just one, a good demonstration of the point that scientists do not just rely on one observation or data point. When students are given data to graph, they are prompted to ask where it came from (in this case NOAA), since it is vital to know exactly where data comes from and be able to check how it was gathered.

Experimenting with the solubility of carbon dioxide in water of different temperature

I liked the way that no prior knowledge was assumed. If your child doesn't already know about atoms and molecules, you can still use this course with them because a simple definition is included in the text. Likewise the scientific method is simply and quickly explained. If you've already covered this you can use it for review, but if not it is a good basic introduction to the foundation of all good science. I also like the fact that it isn't assumed that children can't understand seemingly technical concepts and processes. Infrared spectroscopy is explained in a straight forward manner so students can understand how it is used to determine concentrations of greenhouse gases in air trapped millions of years ago.

Climate change can be a depressing topic and I think it is counterproductive, wrong and even harmful to teach children that their future is doomed because of it, or to leave them thinking that it is an issue that only adults can solve. The Science of Climate Change does not fall into this trap. Instead the last section lays out a lot of simple actions that children and their families can start doing right now, and points out that if everyone does their bit we can limit the scale and impact of climate change. As  a bonus 20% of the profit from this book is being donated to groups educating others about global warming and climate change.

Seeing the Greenhouse Effect in action - comparing temperatures of enclosed and unenclosed spaces.
The Science of Climate Change was not 100% perfect for us. I don't think I've ever found something that is! I would like to have seen more examples and case studies in the section on climate change, so that students would get a more concrete idea how people, animals and plants are being affected. Also, many of the suggested solutions were somewhat simplistic, and/or not without problems of their own. For instance, as a keen birder Miss 16 is very aware of the adverse effects of solar and wind power, especially on migratory birds. However, these reservations are minor, partly a result of Miss 16's age, and easily rectified. For instance I could have her write a research paper on the impact of climate change on birds!

Overall, I wholeheartedly recommend The Science of Climate Change. It is topically relevant, engagingly written, easy to implement and use, and full of a variety of well-integrated meaningful activities. Most importantly it is scientifically accurate and reliable. You should definitely plan to include it in your science programme, especially if your kids are in the middle school range.

If you'd like to learn more or want to buy the course (available as an actual book or an ebook - great for those of us overseas since it avoids postage costs and delivery and delays) just visit the website.

Disclosure: I received this book for free in return for an honest, unbiased review. 

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