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How to bring climate change to life for students

Coming face to face with sharks, fish and seahorses is a great way to engage pupils when discussing climate change, ecosystems and the interconnectedness of life on Earth

Getting close to wildlife can help inspire discussions around climate change and ecosystems

The recent climate change strikes held by schoolchildren across the world showed that young people are crying out to have their voices heard on one of the most pressing issues ever to face humanity.

It’s vital that teachers of science do their part to give students the information they need to understand the issues being discussed, help them develop their own opinions in light of the evidence, and access to academic tools to seek, create and advocate for meaningful political and social change.

However, part of the problem with developing an awareness of the issues of climate change and conservation is that it can feel very remote. The Earth is an incredibly complex system. And humans have caused an enormous number of changes, usually unintended and unanticipated.

In order to understand this complex web of cause and effect – and to take part in wider discussions of humanity’s interactions with the planet – students need a perspective of planetary proportions.

Building blocks of learning

To give them this, it’s vital to follow a sequenced approach that helps pupils learn the fundamental building blocks – or exemplars – of a given topic so they can understand, analyse and respond to the situation as they interpret it.

On the issue of climate change, for example, we can link these exemplars to the idea of “humanity’s influence on the planet”. By giving as many specific examples of this as possible, they will be better poised to anticipate and understand new contexts.

So, students might first learn about food webs involving crustaceans or about their exoskeletons as useful adaptations, then move on to the effect of overfishing on interdependent food webs or ocean acidification’s effect on shell formation.

However, while an image on a PowerPoint or a David Attenborough video can help make such ideas or concepts seem less abstract, nothing compares to seeing animals and plants in real life. This is where a school visit to SEA LIFE London, the capital’s aquarium, could be well timed.

After all, the experience of touching a starfish or watching a spider crab scuttle along the sand serves to ground concepts learned in class in reality, and provide a more embedded student learning experience.

Not only that, but it’s easier to appreciate these organisms as living beings in need of our protection. Certainly it’s difficult to underestimate the awe and wonder, indeed the sheer spectacle, of watching a 9ft shark pass you by, mere inches away on the other side of the glass.

A shark at SEA LIFE London

The world in miniature

There is a vast range of connections between what can be covered in class and what can be seen at the aquarium: classes that have learned about social behaviours of schools of fish or solitary behaviours of certain sharks will be able to ground their knowledge in the shadow of the mesmerising main tank, while groups that have been outdoors observing local insect life will particularly enjoy watching trails of the aquarium’s leaf-cutter ants marching up walls, ropes and plants.

Teachers who use turtles and frogs to illustrate the differences between reptiles and amphibians will be able to delight their students by showing off these animals in situ, while the seahorse tanks are always popular, allowing teachers to spend time discussing the differences in reproductive cycles in the animal kingdom, with seahorses being rare cases where offspring gestate in the male of the species rather than the female.

The aquarium can also help to illustrate more abstract concepts in very real ways. The study of variation, for example, is one of the foundational pillars of biology, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the area of SEA LIFE London dedicated to jellyfish.

Possibly alone among all other species, these alien-like creatures have thrived in recent years, posing students with interesting issues to debate and enabling them to consider how different species react differently to changes in their environment.

Adaptation and inspiration

Workshops direct students to key features and adaptations in other species, too, be it the symbiosis of clown fish and anemones or the different shapes of lobster pincers.

Such examples provide an ideal opportunity to talk about major themes, such as adaptation, habitats and the interconnectedness of all beings on the planet, helping to foster a nuanced and wide-ranging understanding of the Earth’s systems.

These discussions can range from the grand – perhaps looking at how changes in a species’ habitat can lead to the risk of extinction – to the complex, such as how the way in which acids react with carbonates can have devastating effects on many marine organisms’ ability to form carbonate-containing shells.

Such ideas, perhaps at risk of seeming dry and irrelevant to pupils in a classroom, can come alive when the very marine life being discussed is all around you, making it far more tangible – and memorable.

Strictly “scientific” teaching should also be balanced with more socio-economic and political learning: how our economies have expanded in tandem with increased energy consumption, deforestation, animal depopulation and plastic accumulation, for example. It’s a tall order to nurture educated citizens, and one that requires a coherent and strategic approach to knowledge acquisition. 

Ultimately, the richness of the students’ joy in seeing marine life is only enhanced by their ability to relate the things they have learned in the classroom to what they now see in front of them.

As part of a properly planned sequence of learning, a visit to SEA LIFE London can be hugely inspiring for students. Seize with both hands the opportunity for them to learn more, to understand more and to realise their full potential as global citizens.

Adam Boxer is a teacher based in London

Find out more about organising a school trip to SEA LIFE London, and what the visit will involve on the day, by clicking here