Let's Talk About Climate: A PER Lab case study
18 February 2021
Public Engagement - case study
Ken Amor (Earth Sciences) and Sarah Lloyd (Museum of Natural History) were awarded £5,000 with the aim of working with year 11 and 12 teenagers to explore the science of the IPCC reports and reinterpret them, with the support of researchers and museum collections and staff, by creating their own ‘report’ (written, video, art or performance), and sharing this report with policy and decision-makers.
Project at a glance:
- Interactive workshops for young people and researchers to review and present evidence of and solutions for climate change
- £4,900 awarded
- 5 Oxford staff involved, plus supporting early career researchers
- 6 interactive workshops, final event with panel discussion featuring local MPs, city mayor and councillor,
- 60 16-17 year olds participated, a core group of 20 throughout
- Discussed as good practice at various conferences, including the Museums Association
When pictures emerged on social media of 15-year-old Greta Thunberg striking outside the Swedish parliament in summer 2018, it helped spark a global youth movement calling for greater action on climate change.
‘We started to plan Let’s Talk About Climate at the beginning of 2019, when the school climate strikes were really taking off, and we couldn’t have picked a better moment,’ says Dr Ken Amor of Oxford’s Department of Earth Sciences.
Ken first pitched the idea for a series of climate workshops at an MPLS-organised public engagement with research seminar. ‘That event ran through how to do public engagement in a really thought-provoking way: how to design a project, how to select a target audience, how to pin down objectives,’ says Ken.
The original concept, which developed into a series of six workshops plus a political panel event aimed at 15-to-19-year-olds in Oxfordshire, was based around the 2014 IPCC report on climate change. ‘It’s one of the most important documents of our time, providing the evidence for climate change and a blueprint for tackling it,’ says Ken. ‘But it’s also a document that hardly anyone has read – even many senior politicians. I wanted to find a way of bridging the gap between the report and the public: can we as academics explain it in a way that people are able to understand and engage with?
‘We felt that the teenage audience was the right one to target because they are the generation that will be most affected by climate change. Lots of forecasts are looking forward to what the world might be like in 2050, so it’s the younger generation that will have to deal with the problems and the solutions – and we felt they would get the most out of a project like this.’
Ken teamed up with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which co-ran and hosted the workshops, providing invaluable input and expertise in holding public engagement events. Sarah Lloyd, Head of Education at the museum, says: ‘It’s very important for us to engage with a teenage audience, and to engage with the climate conversation, so this was a valuable opportunity for us to do both of those things.
‘Normally, we would approach academics about working with us on public engagement projects based on the topic of their research, so this was a rare opportunity for a researcher to be able to come to us, and for us to be able to facilitate their idea.’
For Sarah, the highlight of the series was the final event, a panel Q&A featuring local MPs Anneliese Dodds and Layla Moran, as well as the Lord Mayor of Oxford, Craig Simmons, and West Oxfordshire councillor Norman MacRae. Ken agrees: ‘Our participants were absolutely brilliant. We’d seen them transition from being quite pessimistic at the first session to being much more positive, informed and engaged about climate change by the end. They asked pertinent questions of our political panel – including quite nuanced issues such as how climate change would affect the least advantaged in society – and overall it was a very mature interrogation of regional and national government.’
Another hallmark of the project was its multidisciplinary nature, with participating researchers coming from backgrounds in fields including earth sciences, engineering, plant sciences and economics. Cécile Giradin (School of Geography and the Environment) and Luke Jackson (Economics), fellow PER Lab participants also supported the project throughout. ‘There’s no single magic bullet for climate change, so we wanted to get a broad view from academia: the underpinning science, the potential solutions, the implications, and the type of behavioural change that will be required of people,’ says Ken. ‘Getting that holistic viewpoint across a range of disciplines fed into the project very nicely. Session topics ranged from biodiversity and our reliance on hydrocarbons to the interplay between science and economics and how to communicate around climate change.’
The transition from pessimism to optimism evident at the final panel event also came through strongly in the project’s evaluation activities. These included a focus group, activities to gauge changes in perception over time, and feedback on the individual sessions, which were attended by a total of almost 60 young people from across the county (including a core group of 15 to 20). One attendee described feeling ‘more optimistic and confident’ about climate action, with another referencing their ‘deepened understanding’ of the subject and several more resolving to speak publicly on the issue and initiate discussions at home and in school.
Ken says: ‘I do outreach for my department, but that generally involves giving talks in schools or at the University and spending no more than an hour with the audience. You’re never quite sure how much they’ve got out of it, and of course you don’t see them again. Being able to monitor and evaluate our participants on a weekly basis over the course of six or seven weeks was enlightening: they become individuals that you really get to know, and having their feedback on a sustained basis is hugely valuable.’
Sarah adds: ‘For me, it was great to see a sustained relationship built up with an engaged group of people. You don’t get that with one-off interactions – you have to work hard to engineer opportunities like this, where you can get to know people’s names, and what they’re passionate about, and what they’re taking away from the activity. And using this range of evaluation techniques in a single project – although they were nothing new individually – was something we hadn’t done before.’
‘Let’s Talk About Climate was, in my view, an extraordinary success,’ says Ken. ‘My message to other researchers who have an idea for a public engagement activity would be to go for it – there are lots of potential avenues out there. The most important things are making sure your activity will be interactive and engaging, so that participants can do their own thinking, and to put together a great team – we certainly couldn’t have done this without the fantastic support of the museum, and in particular Sarah Lloyd.’
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