“Global warming, climate change; it’s all very controversial, and our students want to know more about it, because they think it’s going to affect their future,” said Laura Lang, who teaches chemistry and earth science at North Hardin High School in Elizabethtown.
That’s why she and more than 20 other teachers recently took time from their summers to attend a climate change workshop sponsored by NASA Kentucky Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, commonly known as EPSCoR, and presented by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.
“I thought it would enhance my instructional effectiveness, give me lots more hands-on ideas for my students, and it seems like a good way to spend my summertime,” Lang said.
George Wagner, professor in UK Plant and Soil Sciences, and Carol Hanley, director of the College of Agriculture’s Environmental and Natural Resource Issues Task Force, were the principals on the project. Wagner and Extension Professor Paul Vincelli and Associate Professor Rebecca McCulley, both of the UK College of Agriculture, and Laurie Henry, assistant professor in the UK College of Education, presented sessions on the science and evidence behind climate change, affordable experiments to use in the classroom, how to sift out the chaff in Internet searches and possible careers in the field.
“In my somewhat limited experience in trying to teach and discuss climate change, I have come to the conclusion that talking to adults is valuable and talking to my colleagues is very valuable,” Wagner said, “but if you want to do what I want to do, and that is spread the word and enhance public understanding of the science behind climate change, you’ve got to get to the kids.”
To this team, three of whom are members of the College of Agriculture’s climate change working group, the way “to the kids” is through their teachers. Wagner thinks that most of the teachers who attended the workshop believed that the climate is changing, but were unaware that there was so much scientific evidence and such a big consensus among the scientific community.
For scientists like Wagner, McCulley and Vincelli, their professions demand that they constantly question and search for answers. When it comes to the question of whether the earth’s climate is changing, the scientific evidence and the consensus of nearly 98 percent of the world’s most expert climate scientists has them convinced.
Speculation by the world’s scientists on the effects of atmospheric warming covers everything from rising sea level to drought, flooding, heat waves and wildfires. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the leading international scientific body on the subject. In their latest report, they stated that climate change-related multiple stressors such as limited water resources, loss of biodiversity, forest fires, insect outbreaks and air pollution are reducing resilience in the agricultural sectors.
McCulley spoke to the workshop participants about her area of expertise—forages. She has already seen some of the impact of environmental changes through her research funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Institute for Climate Change Research. At UK’s Spindletop Farm, McCulley studies the effects an increase in air temperature of 3 degrees Celsius and/or a 30 percent increase in rainfall will have on forages.
“We saw pretty dramatic changes in the plant community composition faster than I would have guessed,” she said. “We’ve seen substantial increases in annual C4 (warm season) grasses, which are typically considered weeds here in Kentucky. Crabgrass is a big one.”
For his part of the workshop, Wagner showed the teachers a number of simple experiments. He designed some experiments and borrowed a few from other sources to demonstrate basic scientific principles that relate to climate change. In one experiment, he stoppered one apple juice bottle filled with air and another one filled with carbon dioxide, which he created by mixing vinegar and baking soda. He placed a thermometer in each beaker and then turned a light on both. The result showed that carbon dioxide heats up faster than air. Wagner said this result mimics the well-established fact that an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will add to the greenhouse effect of warming.
“I do these experiments with equipment that can be purchased at a discount or grocery store, so nothing sophisticated,” Wagner said. “If they really want to show this, maybe they’ll take it out of their budget, or maybe they’ll take it out of their pocket. The most expensive things up here are two $7 thermometers. Everything else is something they’d probably find in their chemistry lab or buy at the grocery store. That was my motivation.”
Lang took a plethora of notes during the sessions.
“I can teach it with the atmosphere—the percentage of gases in the air—so we can talk about whether they’re changing or not over time and what effects they have,” she said. “The ocean is becoming acidic. They can see what will happen if I bubble carbon dioxide through ocean water. We can do simple litmus tests (to measure pH). So it looks like there are a lot of different units where I can build some more evidence throughout the year.”
Wagner and Vincelli believe that atmospheric warming will affect Kentucky agriculture over the next two or three decades. Some of those effects may be good, some not so good.
“Once a grandfather could pass along the same climate to his grandson,” Vincelli said. “Well, that’s no longer true. We know it will be different. That’s all we know—it’s going to be different. That alone is scary, because we don’t exactly know what to prepare for.”
George Wagner, 859-257-5974