UMass Lowell climate education initiative expands

Midwest researchers join project to teach public about science through mass-transit campaigns

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Credit: John Wren for UMass Lowell

LOWELL, Mass. – Cool Science, a climate education program launched by UMass Lowell, is expanding its reach across the country, thanks to a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Since 2012, the annual program has asked Massachusetts youths in kindergarten through high school to create artwork that illustrates concepts behind climate science. Each spring, the best of these submissions have been displayed in and on Lowell Regional Transit Authority buses, where they have educated thousands of passengers and other members of the public. The program not only teaches young people and commuters, but also researches the effectiveness of this type of informal learning outside of the classroom.

The project has been so successful, the NSF is supporting its expansion. This year, faculty at UMass Lowell and UMass Boston are introducing Cool Science to young people and commuters in other Merrimack Valley cities and towns and the Worcester area, and also in the Midwest in the Kansas City, Mo., and Topeka, Kan., areas. For the first time, the program is also adding adult mentors who will work with youths through community organizations.

To expand the program, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Kansas State University and the University of Kansas are joining UMass Lowell and UMass Boston on the project. The institutions are doing so to gain the opportunity to teach artistic concepts in new ways and to study the effectiveness of using this format to teach about the science behind extreme weather events in different parts of the country.

“Having grown up in the Kansas City area, I know that some of the extreme weather and climate issues are different in the Midwest than in the Northeast. Issues like drought, flooding and increasingly intense storms are critical for those in the agricultural communities, while issues of sea-level rise and hurricanes are more critical in the Northeast,” said Jill Lohmeier, associate professor in UMass Lowell’s College of Education, who is leading the project for the university with Art and Design Associate Prof. Stephen Mishol.

With the new grant, Cool Science will be accessible to young people through after-school programs and community organizations with the guidance of adult mentors and community educators trained on how to instruct young people on the scientific and artistic concepts behind the artwork they create.

“Cool Science has shown that it can increase commuters’ interest in climate science. With the NSF award, we will be able to dig deeper into which aspects of the project are most effective,” said Oceanography Prof. Bob Chen, interim dean of UMass Boston’s School for the Environment, who is heading the project as it expands this year. “Do different environments, weather events, current events, cultural backgrounds or socio-economic factors affect learning? By comparing communities in Massachusetts with communities in Kansas and Missouri, we should be able to better design educational programs that are robust and effective everywhere.”

Through Cool Science’s partnership with community youth programs in the three states, more than 60 adult mentors will work with young people to create artwork and engage in science education.

“Visual arts have always been this great means for reaching people,” Mishol said.

The artwork will address a different topic for each of the next three years: heat transfer, energy and extreme weather events. The Cool Science researchers will judge entries based on scientific accuracy, visual appeal, clarity, originality and potential for engaging an audience. Celebrations of the winners will be held in all of the program sites. Partners for those events include the Tsongas Industrial History Center in Lowell, the Worcester Art Museum, Union Station in Kansas City, Mo., and the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center in Topeka, Kan.

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UMass Lowell is a national research university located on a high-energy campus in the heart of a global community. The university offers its more than 18,000 students bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in business, education, engineering, fine arts, health, humanities, sciences and social sciences. UMass Lowell delivers high-quality educational programs, vigorous hands-on learning and personal attention from leading faculty and staff, all of which prepare graduates to be leaders in their communities and around the globe. http://www.uml.edu

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Nancy Cicco, 978-934-4944 or [email protected]

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