NAU receives $1 million to educate Native and rural youth about climate change

A $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation is putting Northern Arizona University in a leading role to increase public understanding of global climate change and help prepare the next generation of scientists and educators.

As one of 15 institutions nationwide that was awarded NSF funding as part of the foundation’s Climate Change Education Partnership program, NAU will focus its outreach effort on Native American and rural communities on the Colorado Plateau, targeting students who are historically underrepresented in science and math education.

“One of the things this grant allows us to do is go into these rural communities and meet with teachers and leaders to teach about climate change science and solutions in culturally and regionally relevant ways,” said Jane Marks, NAU biology professor and principal investigator for the project.

Marks said the constantly evolving nature of scientific research makes it a challenge to introduce school-age children to cutting-edge science—a matter complicated by the interdisciplinary nature of climate science, which does not fit neatly into any given science class.
“The topic of climate change has become so politically charged,” she added. “Misinformation and biases often lead to the perception that climate change either is not a real problem or that it is a problem too large to solve.”

In an effort to tackle these challenges, Marks and a team of NAU researchers from the Merriam Powell Center for Environmental Research, the Program in Community Culture and Environment, the Center for Science Teaching and Learning, the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, the Department of Applied Indigenous Studies and the School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability will use the new funding over the next two years to design a middle- through high-school climate change curriculum for the region.

If successful, the team will be eligible for long-term funding from the NSF to implement the program across the Colorado Plateau.

Drawing on the traditional knowledge and relationships that members of Native communities have with the land and its resources, the researchers will incorporate these ideologies into the curriculum.

“We will call on local people, including Native artists, musicians and community leaders, to generate an excitement and interest among the region’s young people about alternative energies, conservation and land use,” Marks said.

Rom Coles, director of the Program in Community Culture and the Environment, said one of the most innovative pieces of the program is that it will “connect the teaching of climate to many of the bold initiatives being advanced by people in the non-profit, private and public sectors to generate a green economy based on energy alternatives that are not carbon-intensive, such as solar and wind power.”

An added goal is to spark an interest among Native and rural students in science, technology, engineering and math—also called STEM disciplines—which Marks said will connect these underserved populations to vital economic and career opportunities.