Pitt, Carnegie Natural History Museum Are Part of Educational Network Formed With $5 Million NSF grant

Issue Date: 
November 5, 2012

Though climate change is often perceived as a phenomenon affecting remote polar territories, urban hot pockets such as Pittsburgh, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. are also experiencing environmental changes affecting energy, transportation, water, and public health systems. To raise awareness about climate change in cities, a network of educational organizations, including the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Museum of Natural History, has created the Climate and Urban Systems Partnership with the help of a $5 million National Science Foundation grant. 

“Often in cities, people can feel immune to thinking about climate. They aren’t thinking it happens in D.C., Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, or New York. But these urban East Coast cities will have to deal with climate change in the next 50 years and adapt to how we live to be able to respond to that change,” said grant co-principal investigator Kevin Crowley, a professor of learning sciences and policy in Pitt’s School of Education and director of Pitt’s Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments.   

Members of the Climate and Urban Systems Partnership are developing city-specific educational programs about climate change in urban environments. The members include the Columbia University Center for Climate Systems Research and the New York Hall of Science in New York City, The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and the Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., in addition to Pitt’s Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments and The Carnegie Museum of Natural History. 

In Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is leading the effort to connect local organizations interested in climate change and urban decision making. This group will then offer climate change activities at city festivals and gatherings. Crowley and fellow faculty and students in the Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments are advising the development of hands-on activities so that they are based on the latest findings in science education research and capitalize on the museum’s scientific resources. 

The Pitt and Carnegie Museum of Natural History experts have already tested one activity with the Pittsburgh public at an Earth Day event in Frick Park. The group crafted model cities on paint trays by gluing tiny Lego® houses to the trays and painting “streets” between the toy houses. Earth Day participants then poured water over the tiny “cities” to simulate severe storm events that may increase with climate change. The water filled up the paint-tray basins, helping participants to visualize how water run-off can inundate cities. Participants could then “purchase” sponges of various colors representing rain gardens and rain barrels to help with run-off issues. The activity connected to the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, an organization present at the Earth Day event that has been working to increase the number of rain barrels and rain gardens in Pittsburgh.

“Pittsburgh festival- goers, including organizations, are the eyes, ears, and hearts of this city,” said Mary Ann Steiner, director of the Center of Lifelong Science Learning at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “They are the ones looking at this city every day and seeing the changes. We want to tap into the passions people have, exposing them to a wide range of climate-change elements and addressing them in easy-to-understand ways that truly resonate.”

Over the next year, the Pittsburgh partnership will develop its city-specific curriculum, paying particular attention to the learning sciences and basing all upcoming activities around leading-edge learning sciences principles. Crowley and his team at the Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments will be looking at the impact of these citywide efforts across the four Eastern cities to see which levels of engagement support changes in the public’s perception of climate change—for example, the impact of decision-making among individuals versus larger municipal entities. “We’ll be coming up with design principles that fit well with the public and considering what we can do to transfer our message from one situation to another, one city to the next,” said Crowley. “We’re trying to think about people’s response to climate change as being connected to the city in which they live.”

Once all climate- change educational programs are set up throughout the cities, the Climate and Urban Systems Partnership will conduct longitudinal studies to see whether the activities are changing the public’s perception of climate change. By 2016, the partnership hopes all programs will be operating in the cities involved.

The Pittsburgh partnership is currently reaching out to local educational organizations and nonprofit organizations that are interested in participating in the initiative. Those who wish to partner should contact Mary Ann Steiner at SteinerM@CarnegieMNH.org.

The Climate and Urban Systems Partnership is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation through its Discovery Research K-12, Climate Change Education, and Support for Enhancing Diversity programs. 

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History, one of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, is among the top natural history museums in the country. It maintains, preserves, and interprets a collection of 22 million objects and scientific specimens used to broaden understanding of evolution, conservation, and biodiversity.
Pitt’s Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments is part of Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center and School of Education. The center conceptualizes, develops, and studies informal learning environments, exploring what it means to learn and change as a result of everyday experiences. Connecting academic theory and real-world practice, the Center’s research focuses on the relationship between learners, mediators, environments, and experiences.