Embodying Climate Change to Understand Global Warming

Dissertationsprojekt von: Kai Niebert


Projekt Den Klimawandel Verstehen

The scientific consensus on the causes of climate change is in contrast to a widespread confusion among the public. Several studies (e.g. Sterman et al. 2000; Author, 2012, 2013, 2014) indicate that not only school students but even qualified science graduates face serious problems to explain how the emission and capture of CO2 influence the atmospheric CO2-budget: Asked to predict the rate of CO2-emissions and removal that is needed to stabilise the atmospheric CO2-level, most students believe that stopping the growth of emissions stops the increase of CO2 concentration (Sterman et al., 2000). That vast majority of students (84%) asserted that the atmospheric CO2-level would stabilise even though emissions exceed removal. This is in fact wrong —emissions and removal need to be the same to stabilise the CO2-level. We use the theoretical framework of embodied cognition to analyse why these principles of climate change are so hard to grasp.
Conceptual metaphor as a theory within the framework of embodied cognition argues that understanding is ultimately grounded in embodied conceptions, either directly, or by imaginatively mapping its structure to the abstract concept to be understood. (Lakoff, 1990; Author, 2013). Embodied cognition explains why we have problems in understanding science concepts like climate change or the atmospheric CO2-budget: They are of abstract nature and therefore imaginative thought is needed. The purpose of this study is to find out: Which embodied conceptions guide students understanding of the CO2-budget? How can external representations that address these embodied conceptions engender understanding the CO2-budget?

Methodology, Methods, Research Instruments or Sources Used
We collected students’ and scientists’ conceptions on the atmospheric CO2 budget from an own interview study (Author 2010), from climate change reports (IPCC, 2013) and from a reanalysis of the study of Sterman et al. (2000). To analyse the conceptions, all data were investigated using qualitative content analysis (Mayring, 2002) and metaphor analysis (Schmitt, 2005). The data are presented on the level of conceptual metaphors (CM) (Lakoff, 1990). Based on the differences and commonalities between scientists’ and students’ conceptions we developed external representations (ER) that meet the students’ learning demand. These external representations were probed in teaching experiments (Steffe, Thompson, & Glasersfeld, 2000) with 39 students in groups of 2-3 students.

Conclusions, Expected Outcomes or Findings
Our analyses of students and scientists CMs on the CO2-budget has shown that in this case students refer to the same image schemata as scientists. Divergences in the conceptions are due to a difference in mapping this image schematic structure to the CO2-budget.
In our teaching experiments we disclosed the balance schema in an ER consisting of a beaker with a valve at the bottom, fed and drained by water. If the valve at the bottom was medium open, the inflow and outflow of water were constant. Our ERs and reflecting on water flowing through a beaker are material representations of image schemata that students and scientists employ in understanding the carbon cycle. These ERs of cognitive schemata helped our students to re-experience the inherent structure of the schema, identify its essential elements, and reflect on how they employ it in their effort to understand the phenomenon. This kind of representation sheds light on the embodied conceptions that shape students’ conceptual understanding. Models in classrooms often work in such a way that they provide new experiences students may use as a source for understanding. Representations that visualise an image schema and its mapping on a scientific concept work differently. They do not provide new experience; they induce an instance of a relived embodied experience. By working with these ER students got the chance to analyse the structure of this specific experience and reflect on their embodied cognition. After experiencing the balance schema and reflecting upon its adaption to the CO2-budget 32 of 39 students were able to argue correctly.

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