Climate Change Is Tough to Teach, So Aquariums and Zoos Are Stepping In

By Marva Hinton — June 02, 2017 | Updated: June 02, 2017 7 min read
Louise Bradshaw, the education director at the Saint Louis Zoo, said her training on climate change was useful in helping the zoo create the new polar bear exhibit shown behind her.
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Climate change is one of those topics that can be difficult to teach. It’s complex. The science around it is evolving, and then there’s the contentious political debate over it as evidenced by the fallout this week from President Donald Trump’s announcement to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement.

All of that combines to make it a subject some educators feel uncomfortable tackling.

Some states have recently tweaked their science standards to take out references to humans’ role in climate change, which most scientists say is not telling students the full story.

The New England Aquarium in Boston has founded a national network to try to make this tough subject easier to teach and to ensure that more members of the public, including students on class visits, get a complete picture of the climate-change problem and what can be done to solve it.

Ten years ago, the aquarium staff was working on strategic planning for the facility and started looking at the most pressing issues affecting the ocean. Climate change rose to the top. At the time, the aquarium wasn’t really addressing it.

William Spitzer, its vice president for programs, exhibits, and planning, said that, back then, the aquarium and its peer institutions were in the same boat. In 2007, he said the documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” was the benchmark for how people were discussing the issue. The film followed former Vice President Al Gore around the country as he attempted to educate the public about global warming.

“Al Gore did a tremendous job of really putting the issue on the map,” Spitzer said, “but he did it in a way that really hit very hard.” But, he said, it “didn’t immediately give people the tools to figure out how can I talk about this in a straightforward way to the average person on the street, and how can I help them understand that they have a role to play here and this is something we can work together on and ultimately solve.”

A Different Training Model

The aquarium staff brought together aquariums, zoos, parks, and science centers from across the country, and the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation, or NNOCCI, was born. In 2010, the National Science Foundation provided a grant to help get the project started in earnest.

NNOCCI (pronounced like gnocchi, the pasta dish) provides training on teaching about climate change for workers at these educational facilities. Pairs of workers apply for the training together. Spitzer said they’ve found that peer support is very important when trainees go back to work.

Kali, a polar bear at the Saint Louis Zoo's new polar bear exhibit, swims past visitors pressed up against the viewing windows. The zoo is using the exhibit to offer lessons on climate change.

Trainees are placed in what are called study circles. Each circle has 10 pairs of people from 10 institutions. A couple of early-career scientists, who are either graduate or postdoctoral students, bring scientific expertise to each group, while two or three facilitators run the circles over six months. Participants spend close to 100 hours taking part in in-person meetings and online sessions, working between sessions at their home institutions.

Unlike most courses, Spitzer said, participants don’t come together for training and then just go home to apply it. Instead, they return to work in the midst of training and then come back to learn more. He compares it to learning a new language.

“When you learn French, you don’t just do it alone,” said Spitzer. “It’s really helpful to do it with other people, to have people to practice with.”

When trainees graduate from the study circle, they become a part of an active alumni group that continues to interact online. NNOCCI also provides them with monthly webinars on the latest scientific information about climate change and the public’s thoughts on the issue.

“Once you get involved, it’s a long-term engagement and a lot of support from peers,” said Spitzer.

Since 2015, Marie Eve Poirier has been the curator of the Lacerte Family Children’s Zoo, part of the Dallas Zoo. She went through the NNOCCI training at her previous job at the Philadelphia Zoo. She used the training to improve how the zoo talked to young people about climate change.

“We already had a climate-change program in Philadelphia, so it was really tweaking the messaging and using those framing elements to try to deliver a message that was less scary, more empowering, and would reach visitors in a more effective way,” said Poirier.

The training also led her to write Nice Weather We’re Having, a children’s book about the topic. An accompanying website,, celebrates students—called “eco-heroes"—who are helping to fight climate change.

Taking Action

In Dallas, Poirier works primarily with farm animals, so she’s tweaked her climate-change message to center around meat consumption.

“Part of the action step that we’re asking people to do is to eat a little less meat,” said Poirier. “That was really daring considering that we’re in cattle country.”

In fact, she said some members of her own staff thought it was a bad idea. “Ranching is part of our culture in Texas,” said Poirier. “But once the framing started taking shape and the messaging was crafted, it made perfect sense to people.”

Poirier isn’t asking her audience to become vegan. She just wants them to cut back their meat consumption by 10 percent, three meals a week for most people. She said guests have responded positively, which she attributes to the way the zoo has framed the issue.

“The most valuable lesson I’ve learned through the entire process is to craft a message that’s going to leave people feeling empowered and that it’s really important to weave that in early in your discussion,” said Poirier.

That message is conveyed through the “Life on the Ranch” show, an eight-minute program that features trained chickens, goats, and pigs. It teaches children who are primarily ages 3 to 8 to eat more veggies and less meat, which can make a big difference for the planet.

At the end of the show, the children are asked to pledge to cut back on meat consumption; so far, nearly 90 percent have decided to take the pledge, she said.

This summer, the zoo will collect data through food journals from children and their families that take the pledge to determine how much the meat reduction is affecting their daily lives. They will also try to determine how much carbon dioxide they’ve prevented from being released into the atmosphere and how many gallons of water they’ve saved by making dietary changes.

“Part of the reason why we selected this particular messaging is that we wanted something that kids have control over,” said Poirier. “If we talk about transportation or if we talk about legislation, those are things that kids have very little control over, so we went with what we felt was the best way for them to make a decision and to weigh in through what they put on their plate.”

Changing Visitors’ Views

Louise Bradshaw, the director of education at the Saint Louis Zoo, went through NNOCCI training in 2012.

“One of the things that is often daunting about climate change is that it’s really complex,” said Bradshaw. “It’s a very complex, confusing issue to understand. It’s not like poaching elephants for ivory. That’s pretty linear.”

Bradshaw said the training helped her zoo write a position statement about climate change, teach its docents and volunteers how to broach the subject with the public, and create a new polar bear exhibit.

That 40,000-square-foot exhibit includes Kali, a 2½-year-old, 850-pound male polar bear. Kali was orphaned when an Alaskan subsistence hunter killed his mother. Once the hunter realized the bear had a cub, he turned the animal over to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which decided that the bear would make the Saint Louis Zoo his home.

The exhibit includes video journals made by Native Americans living in Wales, Alaska. Children there asked their elders about living with climate change and its effect on the polar bears that share a home with them in the Arctic.

“Sometimes, they’re blamed as subsistence hunters for the problems that the polar bears are facing in the wild,” said Bradshaw. “The reality is the few bears that they’re legally allowed to take are not dramatically changing or creating the huge decline in the population that the loss of sea ice is doing. ... These videos have been a really great catalyst to start a conversation and engage with our visitors around climate change.”

Bradshaw said one couple who came to the exhibit related to the idea of hunting for survival. They told one of the zoo’s interpreters that they were hunters themselves, and the interpreter showed them how the loss of polar bears was a threat to the Alaskan hunters’ lives.

“They went, ‘Wow, so their livelihood, their very way of life is in danger,’ and the couple said, ‘Are you saying climate change is real?’ So we’ve seen these kinds of conversations happening,” said Bradshaw.

She said that, while 7 percent of visitors surveyed by the park a few years ago dismissed man-made climate change, many visitors now ask for information about the problem and how they can mitigate it.

“We hope people will feel that they have a part in this,” she said, “and they can do something that can make a difference.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2017 edition of Education Week as Aquariums and Zoos Gear Up to Teach Climate Change

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