Do your maths and tackle the climate crisis

On ECI’s roof: Madeleine Ratcliffe (L) and Lucy Fellingham (R) helped to develop climate exam questions. Image: By courtesy of ECI

So you want to be a climate scientist? For a start, you’ll need good maths. And Oxford educators have found a way to help you.

OXFORD, 29 November, 2019 – Who would have thought it, that everything which goes under the name of maths is a crucial part of the armoury of climate scientists? But, as the scientists themselves know well, it is, and anyone who wants to make an effective contribution to tackling the global climate emergency must be a competent mathematician.

That’s a lesson not lost on the movement that gave life to the idea of regular school climate strikes, Fridays For Future, which today embarks on another round of action aimed at stirring older generations into tackling the global crisis. It has already earned the backing of senior scientists, and now teachers as well are supporting its activities.

If you search online to find the qualifications you need to become a doctor, you’ll find thousands of answers. But ask the same question for solving climate change – for many people the defining issue of our time – and you may search in vain.

Enter MathsforPlanetEarth.org, part of a project on climate engagement with young people and schools being undertaken by the Environmental Change Institute (ECI) and the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford, UK.

“I’ve been to several school climate strikes this year and met many inspiring, passionate and very well-informed students. Our best contribution is to give them the intellectual tools to help do the job”

The project began with a pop-up “Ask a climate scientist” stand at the student marches, where ECI scientists quickly realised they needed a more strategic offer. They are now working with the university’s education department, with local teachers and with app developers, both “on curriculum” and extra-curriculum. MathsforPlanetEarth.org is their first output and is working to get climate change into A-level maths.

“We’ve started with maths”, says Myles Allen, Oxford’s professor of geosystem science and leader of climateprediction.net, the world’s largest climate forecasting experiment. “There are a lot of numbers and calculations in the weather, temperature and climate models, and around solutions like renewable energy and adaptations like where and how high to build flood defences. We need more brainy mathematicians.”

MathsforPlanetEarth.org has begun deliberately with exam questions. A team of local students – school and university – have worked with scientists at ECI, crafting a collection of climate-related problems based on the A-level and GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) syllabuses (see here for examples). Their problems closely follow the format of the more traditional topics usually associated with school maths.

Irritating topics

“I’ve been to several school climate strikes this year and met many inspiring, passionate and very well-informed students”, Professor Allen told the Climate News Network. “They have extraordinary energy. As educators, our best contribution is to give them the intellectual tools to help do the job.

“Many climate strikers seem taken aback when I urge them to keep their maths going. And when we looked at the examples of maths questions they are given at school, it’s not surprising: almost all of them seemed to be about cars or money, two topics almost guaranteed to irritate a concerned climate-striker.

“So we put this website together to provide teachers with interesting problems in climate change and sustainability, using exactly the techniques they are teaching in GCSE and A-levels anyway. For now, we just have to explain to kids how much of what they learn is relevant to climate change already.”

What MathsforPlanetEarth.org can do in the UK could work well elsewhere too. Dr Kim Polgreen, founder of a new social enterprise, Leadership in Global Change (LIGC), has been collaborating with ECI, hosting sustainability summer schools for 15-18 year olds from across the world, and from local schools in Oxford.

Impatient ambition

She is working to get ECI’s project into schools through teacher training organisations and teacher groups. “While teachers like the idea, they are challenged by needing some confidence in the science that lies behind the questions”, she says.

She is one of over 800 international graduates from ECI, now working in more than 80 countries, who could be a good way to tell teachers about the project worldwide. She also sees maths as just a start: “I am hopeful that we can expand the concept to texts used in English, to more case studies in geography and the sciences. This approach can make the curriculum across all subjects more real and meaningful for today’s teenagers.”

Professor Allen agrees: “Climate change – and the environment – are today’s pioneering topics for young people’s education. We must be ambitious and impatient about creating stimulating material across all subjects, equipping our children with the skills they need.” – Climate News Network

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How would you make MathsforPlanetEarth.org better?

ECI would like to hear from teachers, students and others about what you think of MathsforPlanetEarth.org – and how you would improve and add to it.
Please send your comments to: mathsforplanetearth@ouce.ox.ac.uk

Thank you!

About Alex Kirby

Alex Kirby is a former BBC journalist and environment correspondent. He now works with universities, charities and international agencies to improve their media skills, and with journalists in the developing world keen to specialise in environmental reporting.