Undergraduate Biology Students’ Climate Change Communication and Training Experiences

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Madeline Aadnes
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University Honors College, Middle Tennessee State University
Although climate change is a major threat to humanity, scientists have had trouble effectively communicating about it. Undergraduate science students represent the next generation of science communicators and can be boundary spanners within their communities but there is little research about how undergraduate students communicate about controversial biology topics like climate change and how they are being prepared to do so. We wanted to explore a potential need for undergraduate student training on climate change communication. We surveyed 191 biology students at 38 universities about their communication frequency and preparedness. To understand student experiences in more depth, we interviewed 39 of the survey participants. We asked students to describe their experiences communicating, when they feel confident or not, and to describe their experiences and needs when learning about climate change communication in their classes. Descriptive statistics of survey data showed 25% of students communicated about climate change on a weekly basis. Students felt moderately confident discussing the causes (54%) and effects (60%) of climate change, but not the solutions (36%) to climate change. Qualitative coding of 32 interviews (Cohen’s κ = .90) showed that while students are communicating about climate change, it tends to be only to those who already accept climate change. Students did not feel prepared to communicate about climate change to non-scientists or those who disagree with them about climate change, so most students avoided interacting with them. Participants described a lack of scientific communication training, even though students had a desire to be taught effective communication skills. These results indicate that students are already science communicators but tend to “preach to the choir”. While the undergraduate biology students we interviewed wanted to be taught effective communication skills, they were not getting it in their science curriculum. Further, our interviews indicate that if these students felt more prepared to communicate to non-scientists it may make them more willing to discuss climate change with people of differing views than their own. KEYWORDS: Climate Change; Communication; Science Communication; Biology Education