Writing grants is a big part of doing science. While some science can be done with just a clever idea and data that already exists, it’s more common that we have to go do something. We might need to travel to collect some samples, so we’d need to pay for the train, flights, gas for a car, or even just food. We could need to do some chemistry, which costs money for reagents, time on thousands-or-million-or ten’s of dollar machines, or just beakers! We could also just need to pay our salary while we spend time identifying little tiny fossils, or we could want to pay a student to do it. That last bit is important: Science is a career, and for some folks, they need to bring in grants or they don’t get paid.
How we write grants is not something we talk much about, outside of the occasional (well-earned) whining on social media. It’s a lot of work, and getting them is tough. Here’s a little feeling of what it’s like to write a large grant.
The first thing is to have an idea. Now, not just any idea works. You’ve got to have an idea that: A. you think is exciting, B. others think is exciting, and C. everybody agrees is important. A ‘fishing expedition’, where you might get something neat but you’ve got no clear hypothesis to test, doesn’t work. Even just having a clear hypothesis isn’t enough. You really need to have an idea that has some important impacts for your field and usually society.
The most important part of the grant is a 15 page proposal. The proposal lays out the idea. It then supports it with specific language about how we’re going to accomplish that idea, including timelines, deliverables, and back-up plans of what we’re going to do if something doesn’t work. These documents usually need multiple sections, tables of locations, maps, graphs, theoretical diagrams, and a lot of times there’s even unpublished data which supports the hypothesis but just isn’t enough to publish yet. There are also lists of who is going to work on the grant, all of the referenced papers, explanations of how we’re going to coordinate so that we’re getting the maximum amount of science progress out of the money. Usually these things end up being extremely densely written with sub-sub-sub-headings. Ours wasn’t to specifically do science, it was to augment the capabilities in a few systems that existed, so that somebody could come later and do science. Since we’re creating this new thing, I’m hoping that it’s going to be us, since we’ve ostensibly got the jump on everybody, but the goal of open science is to make the data work for all of us.
The proposal is only the fun part though, planning out how you’re going to do all the science. We also have to prepare a detailed budget that accounts for every dollar we’re asking for, and then a separate document that justifies why we’re spending it. Ours was 5 or so pages. We also had to write a list of all our collaborators for the last 5 years, supply our 5 most relevant papers and then 5 others, where we work, ‘synergistic activities’ (which is a fancy way of saying outreach or community-service type of activities). We had to prepare a 2 page summary of how we’re going to make our data publicly available (this was really easy for us since that’s the whole point of our grant). If there’s more than one person from the same institution proposing this idea, then they all need to list their collaborators, their papers, and so on. Then, if we’re working with another institution, they have to do all of that as well. Each University submits their own budget, justification, all of the co-principal investigators (folks proposing this work) have to list their collaborators, papers, and on.
For our grant, I’m the “Lead Principal Investigator” which means that I’m quote-unquote in-charge. It also means that I’m most liable if this thing fails, which would mean that I’m far less likely to get another grant any time soon (I should point out that I’m only able to be in charge of this because I’m affiliated with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia as well as the University of Bristol). The grant primarily includes the University of Wisconsin and Texas A&M University, so they had to do their own budgets, and all of that. There’s also work being done at the a few other universities, a non-profit, and a programming company. Those folks just had contracts they had to draw up, but they were budgeted for on the primary universities budgets. All of those contracts had to be submitted alongside the grant.
Still not done though! We also had to get letters from everybody tangentially involved that was mentioned in the grant. So, we mentioned that we’d invite two other scientists who are experienced in similar things to one of the workshops we’re going to have. We had to have a letter from each of those people, as well as anybody else involved, which meant quite a few others.
Then, once you’re all done with that, the Grants Certification and Authorization office has to approve all of the information you’ve put in, and check your math on the budgeting. Sometimes that office requires weeks of lead time, so not only do you have to do all of the above, you have to do it early! Even more confusing, different institution’s grants offices work completely different, which can get very frustrating if you move around constantly, like many early career academics. Finally, and this part is a little sad, they get to push the button and submit. And then the other primary institutions do that too.
There’s a whole, long, parallel story about how proposals are reviewed and then how they decide on to whom to give money.
All of this is in the hopes that you are one of the one out of five proposals funded. They also usually cut your budget, even if they fund you. If you don’t get funding, you get 3 descriptions about why your ideas wasn’t good enough to fund. All in all, the above is several months worth of work, so it’s basically a high-risk/high-reward process. Even if you do have an amazing idea (like we did!), there’s a low probability of success on the first try (we only succeeded on our second try).
Academia is complicated. Each position has complicating factors that are unrelated to the work you’ll do, or who you’ll do it with. Considering the money and benefits are important. Here’s a discussion of some of the things that we have had to consider as we’ve moved around the world. Andy is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Bristol, Susanna is his very supportive and wonderful wife who’s been dragged all around the United States, and now world.
Susanna: I didn’t know what the life of an academic looked like. I’m not sure Andy did either, when we first got together, but the things listed here certainly affected us both.
Funding is not guaranteed for an advanced degree.
Susanna: There are different benefit scenarios which might be offered to someone applying for a Masters or Ph.D. program. My husband’s Masters program offered him a Research Assistant (RA) position, which basically meant he was paid to do his work. For his Ph.D., he was offered two years of funding as a Teaching Assistant (TA), which paid our living expenses, but it meant he had to spend time for teaching first before attending to his own research work.
Andy: Though I did get teaching experience, which helped build my CV. That’s something I actively pursued, even at the expense of money/research time.
Susanna: After the two years ran out, we were fortunate that his advisor helped provide opportunities for grants, fellowships, or other ways to stay in the program.
Andy: This can be a good thing also, to be finding grants as a PhD student, as once out of a PhD program you have to fight for money as well. It makes for a much more stressful early PhD process, though.
Benefits are not guaranteed.
Susanna: Our insurance coverage has run the gamut from fully covered with no copays, to paying $400+ a month for our own coverage under the Affordable Care Act. When Andy held a postdoctoral position as an independent contractor (Peter Buck “Deep-Time” Paleobiology Postdoctoral Fellow) with the Smithsonian Institution – National Museum for Natural History, he was allowed to purchase a healthcare plan through them. Let me walk you through what that would have been like.
Andy was paid $3766 a month. As an independent contractor, we had to deduct our own money for taxes and make quarterly tax payments. So we always immediately deducted $755 per paycheck. We lived in Arlington, VA, outside of D.C., and our rent was $1850 (Andy: That was cheap for the area. D.C. is expensive.). So far we are down to $1161. If we had opted to purchase the Smithsonian plan, we would have had $161 left per month. That would have had to cover utilities, food for a family of three, a Metro pass to get Andy to work (Andy: As an independent contractor the museum doesn’t have to pay for commuting expenses, as they would for a true employee.), gas for our car, auto insurance, any other expense that could and would crop up.
Andy: Susanna also could not get a job, as our daughter was not school-aged and childcare is outrageously expensive in the area.I did get a $2,000 per-year healthcare stipend, though that is not standard with that fellowship; many of my colleagues did not get one.
Susanna: We opted to buy our own coverage through the Affordable Care Act for about $400 a month instead, leaving us with $761 a month for all the above-listed expenses and the ones I’m surely forgetting. It didn’t leave much for anything unexpected, and certainly not much for leisure.
Affordable Cares Act
Total per month:
At UMASS during Andy’s Ph.D. program, we had the same insurance as undergraduate students, including being seen at the campus health services. It was a very different atmosphere sitting in a waiting room full of students. To make a broad generalization, students were often there to get notes to get out of class; I was there because our daughter was vomiting.
Andy: The actual coverage varied quite a bit as well, as the university (UMass) and the Graduate Student Union were in the middle of a series of contentious negotiations. It varied enough that we decided to go onto Susanna’s employer insurance for a while, because if we had had a kid it would have cost thousands of dollars out-of-pocket.
Susanna: Conversely, the coverage for graduate students at University of Wisconsin while we were there was the same coverage granted to the professors. It was, if healthcare can be such a thing, luxurious.
The applicant is usually expected to pay their own moving expenses.
Susanna: When a job does offer relocation funds, they are almost always after-the-fact and you will have to submit a receipt and wait to be reimbursed. Depending on the length of the move, the amount of stuff you have, and the size of your family, this can be a huge burden or a minor inconvenience. In my experience, moving always costs more than you think it will, on both the leaving and arriving ends. We have been lucky to have family financial help when we’ve needed it. We’ve done renting and loading a truck ourselves, hired movers to help pack, load, and drive, multi-day drives with our daughter in tow (and once, dog). We also flew from the United States to England, where we live currently, with only 200 lbs of stuff to start a new British life.
I will point out how frequently there has been a delay in receiving a first paycheck, too, since that appears to be a common complaint. How are you supposed to pay for a move upfront, and then wait 1.5 months to be paid?
Andy: Some places will help you with this. Some of our travel to the UK, and some of our visas were covered by the University and the grant supporting me. The NMNH provided a bit of money as well. Sam Houston State University helped us move from DC to Texas. You will likely not find that in graduate programs, and I also expect it’s less frequent in postdoc programs. It’s also never enough money to cover moving, which is so unexpectedly expensive every time.
Moving somewhere you never considered
Susanna: I am from Michigan originally. After college, I moved to Madison, Wisconsin (Andy: to be with me!), and it wasn’t much of a change. I liked it quite a bit. Western Massachusetts after that was more hilly than I was used to, but again, there were still four discernible seasons. Just the way I like it. Northern Virginia was too hot for too many months in a row.
So what did we do after that? Moved to Texas.
Andy: Something I will apologize for years for.
Susanna: When job-hunting, my husband will sometimes throw out questions to me like, “How do you feel about living in New Zealand?” and I can hardly say no. He has applied all over the world. Around the same time he got the postdoc at the National Museum of Natural History, he had also got a Royal Society Fellowship that would have taken us to Southampton, England. We thought we had missed the chance to live in England by accepting the position in Washington D.C., but another position in Bristol opened up last spring and here we are.
You (Might) Travel
Susanna: Andy has gotten to travel a lot for work. He has gone to conferences, school, meetings, and even sailed onboard the research vessel the JOIDES Resolution for seven weeks. In no order, he’s been to: Germany, Italy, San Francisco, Puerto Rico, Montserrat (Andy: Technically I was just off the coast, never on Montserrat, but close enough), Vancouver B.C., New Orleans, surely others. Unfortunately we could rarely afford for me to tag along, but I did meet him in Curacao when he got off the JOIDES Resolution and we took a vacation there.
When in-person interviews start getting scheduled again, there will be more travel.
Andy: Get a frequent flyer card! It won’t matter because you’ll almost constantly be forced to fly whatever flight is cheapest, but I hold out hope it’ll help someday.
Job-Seeking Starts Earlier Than You Think, and Takes Longer Too
Susanna: Most US places start looking for candidates about a year ahead of time. In this case, that means that Andy started looking for jobs pretty much as soon as he started teaching at a Visiting Assistant Professor position at Sam Houston State University. Each job application required a few hours’ work. The standard documents requested from each candidate are: cover letter, CV, teaching statement, and research statement. Of course, it’s best to spend some time on the boilerplate document and make sure it addresses specifics about the department for which you’re applying. This takes real time.
Andy: I once calculated the time spent on it. A job with 75 applicants, each spending an average of 3 hrs on that application, with letter writers spending 30 minute each, means that 337 hours is spent by people on the applicant side for each academic job. In our case, that means that during job season Susanna is the primary parent on weekends and I’m stuck on my computer typing and editing (until she takes over and edits everything).
Andy: Finding postdoc positions is tough. I’m balancing a family, a research focus, a strong urge to teach or do something where I’m interacting with non-scientists, and more. I got lucky when I blind emailed a potential advisor with a project, he immediately wrote back, we Skyped, and then wrote countless (ok, 6 or 7) postdoc funding applications together. He mentored me though the entire process. Sometimes you get lucky with good timing or just finding the right people.
I’m not one to normally be able to email somebody out of the blue, but having a supportive partner through this experience has made it more possible for me to do my best work.
Andy: All of these are things that we’ve considered over the years about different positions. It’s certainly not an exhaustive list. Certain places have built up structures to exploit graduate students or postdocs. They might have excellent name recognition, but always consider carefully the cost of living, pay, and benefits of a place. It’s a lot harder to get your best science done when you’re worried about the basic necessities of life.
Often one of the biggest challenges academics and scientists face is writing- namely, getting our research written up as a manuscript and published in an academic journal. We, as scientists, always commiserate about how hard writing is, and how we loath doing it, but I want to talk about a different aspect of writing and publishing that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough: collaborating with other scientists and working together as a team to get research published.
In the early years of academic publishing, it was very common for scientists to publish articles by themselves, or what is called a single-author manuscript. Today, however, the tide has changed, and it’s rare to find a published article with just one author! In fact, it’s not uncommon to find papers with more than 30 authors (such as those published that include an entire science tea, like a International Ocean Discovery Program expedition teams). Finding, working, and publishing with collaborators can be tricky, and at times seem daunting. However, if you know how to work as a team and navigate the collaborative waters, these partnerships will give back tenfold! In this post is some advice from some of the Time Scavengers collaborators on how to find, work with, and publish with scientific collaborators.
On Finding Project Collaborators
Jen: Start with people you know that are excited about similar ideas; these can be old lab members, peers or colleagues you have met along your career. For example, Adriane and I were in the same masters program and even though they parted ways to begin new paths as PhD students we kept in contact. So, starting this website was a simple task with two people in different fields who are passionate about educating the public. This connection has fostered further collaborations with Adriane and Sarah, who I found during her PhD program. We worked to create a web of scientists with similar drives but different technical toolkits. If you are new to a field, attending a large conference where you can be exposed to new people and ideas is a brilliant way to find new collaborators.
Adriane: Think of a collaboration with a colleague as you would any friendship: you want trust, clear and constant communication, and you want to have fun and be yourself with your friend! A collaborator is no different. When choosing who to collaborate with, make sure you get along with the person, and are able to have open and honest conversations with them. For example, Jen and I are great friends, and had a ton of fun together in graduate school at Ohio University. We have similar career goals, interests, and hobbies, and we can be totally goofy and honest with one another. For this reason, I knew we would make excellent collaborators building this website together.
If you are a graduate student, you are likely doing your projects on a tight timeline. For this reason, you need to be sure that your collaborator is someone who is willing to put time into the project so that it is finished on time. When collaborating with more senior scientists, make sure this person is invested in your success as a scientist. One of my dissertation chapters involves collaborating with a professor at another university across the country. I have worked all summer to pick foraminifera for stable isotope analyses, and when I have enough, I mail them to my collaborator who will analyze the samples in his lab. Some of my samples weigh almost nothing, which means they will be tricky to analyze. However, I communicated my concern to my collaborator, and he has been wonderful in working his geochemical superpowers to ensure most of my samples are analyzed correctly (of the ~300 samples I sent him, only ~15 were unable to be analyzed!). Most importantly, he has gotten my results to me within weeks of me mailing my samples to him, which has put me ahead of schedule to complete all of my analyses (this is a rare occurrence in graduate school). So, I have excellent results from my samples, and I’m ahead of my research schedule for this project because my collaborator is invested in my success and the success of my research.
Andy: I have two sets of collaborators, basically. As a graduate student I started collaborating mostly within my lab. My work with Chris Lowery (@CLowery806) has produced one paper, another in review, and a third building on the second, with an additional collaborator. We’ve also done a workshop together, and gotten each other talks, etc. Even though we’re directly competing for jobs at this stage in our career, it doesn’t affect our working relationship. That’s the kind of collaboration you should look for, one that makes both people better candidates for future jobs.
The second is with a couple of people. I was sitting at a wedding celebration for my then-supervisor, and another scientist and I started talking about work (as happens whenever you put two of us in a room together). She and I continued emailing, she brought in a friend who’d also been thinking about the same problem. These people have no connection to my lab, we’re just friends who are now working on grants and doing workshops together. We all bring different skills to the table, but most importantly we actually like each other. That makes working on projects easier. Working with people you don’t like sucks (this is also good advice for picking graduate advisors & postdoc supervisors).
On Working with Collaborators
Adriane: I can’t stress communication enough; this is THE MOST important factor when it comes to working with with collaborators. Bad communication can lead to assumptions, and well, you know what they say about assumptions. It can also lead to projects not being completed on time or people not understanding their role or responsibility within the project.
When you begin a new project with a collaborator or bring a collaborator on board to work with you, the first thing you should do is talk with them about your timeline, goals, and what everyone’s responsibility will be in regards to work done to complete the project. When I develop a new project with a collaborator, I like to outline the main hypothesis (or hypotheses) of the project, the methods, and the deadline for when each goal or analysis should be completed, and who will complete each goal or analysis. It is also a good idea to talk with your collaborator about how they prefer to share documents. Google Drive is my preferred method of sharing documents and writing papers with collaborators, but there are other options out there as well (e.g., Dropbox, Box, and Slack).
If I haven’t heard from my collaborator in a while regarding a project, I like to send them an email with the progress I’ve made on my part and check in with them. Like I stated earlier, it is very easy for all of us (students, postdocs, professors), to ignore one project for another. Sending an email to your collaborator and staying in touch is a good way to keep them motivated to compete their part of the project.
Andy: Skype or Google Hangouts are worth many emails when starting out and finishing. Depending on what you’re doing (workshops are very different than publications) but having every few month Skype meetings is well worth carving out the time for.
Adriane is correct, in the above, but optimistic. Best laid plans are wonderful, but all of the deadlines will fall apart. Don’t let that be discouraging. If you’re working with folks above the graduate level they’re managing students, writing papers and grants, teaching classes, and usually working on several other collaborative projects at once.
Jen: I agree with both Adriane and Andy and would like to add that you should maintain reasonable expectations. Somethings will go very quickly when you and other collaborators are really excited but you can’t shirk all other personal and professional responsibilities for a single project, that is unreasonable. Give yourself a flexible timeline but if you have set deadlines work within those confines.
Also, if something bothers you and you aren’t the PI or lead author say something anyway. You wouldn’t be on the project if the team didn’t value your input. Often times people get too close to their work and either lose sight of something or they implicitly understand the meaning but it may not always be clear to others.
On Publishing with Collaborators
Publishing with collaborators can be a tricky arena to navigate; Who will be the first author? How will the authorship list read? Does your collaborator even deserve co authorship on your paper? Does anyone else deserve co authorship? Different scientists may have different ‘rules’ pertaining to these questions, but here are some of our guidelines:
Who will be the first author of a study?
Adriane: Usually, the person that conceives the study and develops the hypothesis is the first author on a publication. There are exceptions to this, especially when a graduate student’s advisor helps the student conceive the study and leads them to develop the hypotheses. Outside of graduate school, the lead author of the study is the person who develops the project, invites collaborators, and does the majority of the writing and figure making.
Andy: When it’s a pair or group that works together frequently, then the first authorship can rotate. Sometimes there’s a handshake agreement that if the first authorship goes to one person on paper A, then it’ll go to the second person on paper B. This can lock you into a certain number of publications.
Jen: I agree with both Andy and Adriane and have used both techniques to determine authorship. Who is graduating first and in most dire need for publications can dictates authorship with rotations in the future as Andy said. Generally, it should be the person who conducted the most work on the project.
How will the co-authorship list read?
Adriane: This is a situation where communication is key. In a few of my projects, I have stated up front where my collaborator will fall in the authorship list. In other cases, the person that does the most work (after the first author of the study) receives second authorship, and so on. On other publications where everyone has contributed equally to the project, the authorship list is alphabetical by last name after the first author. However, this can cause issues if one (or more) of your collaborators feel like they have contributed more to the study, as alphabetical authorship allows nothing to be inferred about the contribution of the scientist to the study. Again, having open and honest conversations about authorship and how the authorship list will read early in the process is a great starting point.
Jen: This is also quite variable and field dependent. Sometimes names are all alphabetical, many times the PI of the lab is last indicating seniority, etc. I think there are effective and convoluted ways to describe and detail contributions per individual that lead to appropriate authorship lists. I generally tend to think in decreasing order of work contributed with the lab PI at the end unless there was no umbrella PI.
Who deserves co-authorship on your publication?
Adriane: My rule of thumb when it comes to co authorship is that whoever has contributed significantly to the study, i.e., you couldn’t have completed the project without them, deserves to be included as a co author on your publication. For example, I am currently developing a stable isotope record for the Tasman Sea in collaboration with my collaborator who is in California. Our geochemist at UMass who manages our stable isotope lab has been an essential part of making sure my analyses have ran properly in the lab. Therefore, he is being included as a co author on the study, even though he hasn’t helped to develop the hypotheses of the study or the methods. Without him, I wouldn’t have the data to even write a paper in the first place. Co authorship can also be offered to researchers who significantly contribute to the paper’s conclusions through discussions and suggestions of the data. However, this varies on a case-by-case basis. In these situations, I suggest using your intuition as to whether you think the study has been greatly enhanced through discussions.
I also have rules about who does not deserve co authorship on a study. If a person offers you off-handed advice, or you ask an outside researcher about a question pertaining to your study, this does not warrant co authorship on a paper. Scientists who have previously published data that you use in your study, whether that be in the form of a published thesis, dissertation, or journal publication, also does not deserve co authorship on your study. However, if you do use unpublished data from another researcher, you must absolutely include that researcher on your paper as a coauthor.
Jen: I wholeheartedly agree with Adriane. Significant efforts including but not limited to: data gathering, prepping, or analyzing and writing portions of the paper. Also, do not let people bully you into giving them co-authorship. If a related researcher wants to contribute to your body of work, fine. But just because they have strong ideas or opinions does not mean they get to commandeer your work.
A few weeks ago I took part in FUTURES: European Researchers Night (@FUTURES_ERN). FUTURES occurs all over the EU (300 cities, 24 countries), but locally was put on by several universities (University of Bristol, University of Bath, Bath Spa University) to highlight the contributions of the European Union to science in the area. There were storytelling functions, programs where you could walk to different locations with scientists talking about their research, and even the wonderfully British “Tea with a Researcher”. One of the odd things about science is that in a few key ways I count as a quasi-European researcher now that I’m affiliated with (work for) a European University. I’m also funded by the UK government through the Natural Environment Research Council. This is all despite being American. I originally wasn’t going to take part in this because I was supposed to be at a meeting, but a family circumstance required me to stay in town. Luckily, a local children’s museum was close enough and a few folks from the School of Earth Sciences had organized a display already. Because I was supposed to be in London, I had no part in the planning or creation of anything. As somebody who knows how much time can go into those, it was very nice to just come in and talk to folks.
There were several different parts to the display. We had three jars with different levels of CO2 and lamps demonstrating the greenhouse effect. The jar and lamp setup worked surprisingly well, considering the numerous other variables, but by the end of the evening I think the seals gave out and the pure-CO2 temperature jar had equalized with the others. There were also several banners we could use in the background to talk about the different effects that climate change has on the Earth and us, including one that described the different fluxes of CO2 into the atmosphere (~28% from power, ~28% from transportation, etc.). Lastly, and the most conversation-starting, was a collection of food with a representation of how much carbon goes into the air. The best part was that there was a set of balloons each representing 1 kg of carbon. For each item then, there was a sheet of paper with how much carbon is emitted during production, then graphically represented as a bunch of balloons. So, if 3 kg of carbon is emitted, there were 3 clutches of balloons. It led to discussions of how much meat production emits, if it’s better to eat local or in season, and how much CO2 different modes of transportation emit. The balloons were key for many people, as they took a difficult problem to represent (atmospheric gas) and made it visual.
The entire display worked better for adults than it did for kids. In part, it’s tough to communicate climate change to kids… that’s not accurate. It feels really bad to talk about climate change to children. They’re too young to do anything about it; they can’t vote, they have little control over their eating habits, they can’t control how they get around, but mostly because it’s not their fault. Climate change is a problem that we and our parents and their parents have caused, and it sucks to be the one to tell kids about what’s going to happen when they’re adults. Also, we were across the aisle from a virtual reality blood vein, so tough for jars of gas to compete. Bringing climate science to kids relies on props: cores, fossils, etc.; bringing it to adults can use that, but you can also talk about the real and very scary challenges that we will face due to climate change.
Political polarization, the ever-widening divide between Right and Left in the US, is an obvious problem. We have lost our ability to communicate with one another: using different sets of ‘facts’ to back up our arguments, with the ‘facts’ depending on our side of the political spectrum. The internet has in large part facilitated this fracturing. One can spend 10 minutes on Google to find support for anything that they believe. For example, Youtube videos link to increasingly conspiratorial videos, pushing us farther apart. This loss to our collective conversation is damaging in most arenas, even in the classroom or lecture halls. When a collection of outright lies masquerading as facts meets science, it causes problems. When a student population has firmly-held beliefs in concepts that are simply not true, as a facet of their personal values or beliefs, this presents a difficult and unique challenge for an instructor. I was a visiting assistant professor in a conservative area, dealt with these issues, and hope to provide some help for those who are walking into a similar task in this post.
I loved teaching at Sam Houston State University (SHSU), enjoyed my time with both my students and colleagues. Some of this is going to read as if I was combative the entire time I was at SHSU. I wasn’t. I truly enjoyed interacting with my students (and most liked interacting with me, from reading my evaluations), especially the ones who thought about topics differently than I do. College is supposed to be about exposure to new ideas, after all. I find it difficult to let people believe in materially incorrect things however, especially when they’re detrimental to their lives, and to my own or my family’s lives. SHSU is in a very conservative area in East Texas, and my introductory, general education course covered both climate change and evolution. Covering these subjects meant that the students signing up for “Historical Geology” as an easy science credit got a more ‘controversial’ course than they expected.
To say that climate change or evolution is controversial is imprecise. Both subjects, scientifically, are not controversial, especially at the introductory level. Evolution is a multifaceted theory that is accepted by scientists and there are no competing arguments; this has been understood for 150 years. Scientists also agree that the climate has been changing for decades, and that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a potent greenhouse gas since Svante Arrhenius calculated the extent to which increases in CO2 can cause heating in the atmosphere (he was alive in 1859-1927). Both subjects, unfortunately, are controversial in the public’s eye. Today, 29% of the American public believe scientists do not agree that humans have evolved over time, and 32% reject the scientific fact that is human-caused climate change (and 24% are uncertain!). Walker County, TX, which SHSU is in, has 7% lower acceptance rate than the national average. When I asked my students if scientists agree or do not agree that evolution is a fundamental process describing change through time, ~20% said scientists did not agree. To say that my classes were comprised of more conservative students, with strong personal beliefs, than an average introductory science course in the US is probably accurate.
Educating a student population with strongly held personal beliefs counter to course material doesn’t work well with traditional teaching methods. We not only have to teach students the material that they need them to understand for the course (past greenhouse gas changes, radiative forcing, proxy data, feedback mechanisms, etc.) but we also have to convince them of barefaced reality. We have to convince them that, no, scientists aren’t lying to them or the public. We have to convince them that we’re not in the pocket of ‘big-environment’, reaping the benefits of ‘big’ grants. We have to recover their idea that there can be legitimacy of the scientific process. If you say the words ‘climate change’ to someone of a Right ideology, they are likely to not listen to what you say afterwards because you’ve been written off as ‘far-Left’. How do you teach when your students might react that way?
A Hybrid Teaching Approach
Instructors, professors, and educators have to engage in science communication rather than teaching. Not entirely, but to a degree that can be uncomfortable. To explain: Science communication is sharing scientific results with the non-expert public. It relies heavily on a ‘values-based’ model, which is empirically more effective than the older ‘information-deficit’ model. The information-deficit model said that “People just don’t know enough, so if I explain what I know, they’ll agree with me.” That’s standard teaching. The professor explains the subject, the students take notes, everybody agrees the professor is telling the truth and that the professor has the most thorough understanding and information. The information-deficit model assumes that facts win, which simply isn’t the case. We resist facts that don’t conform to our strongly held beliefs. It doesn’t work if everyone does not agrees that the professor has authority in the subject. If a large enough number of the class think the professor is a member of a global conspiracy of attempted wealth redistribution, then the information deficit model falls completely apart. If the information-deficit model worked, then no one walking out of a (properly taught) high school biology course would believe intelligent design or creationism. That’s simply not the case.
The values-model says that the communicator (professor, instructor, educator) establishes shared values with their audience and communicates with them in a back-and-forth exchange. They then explain why a scientific concept is important to them, and why it should also be important for those who share the same values. That’s not teaching, in the purest sense, because it’s broader than just pure information conveying. That’s also not possible in the lectures we frequently find ourselves teaching.
Let’s assume that our goal is to take students who are uncertain about climate change, or don’t believe that evolution has occurred through time, and get them to accept scientific truths. Information-deficit isn’t going to get us to students accepting the truth, if we’re dealing with a resistant population. While not all of my students were resistant, I like to ‘swing for the fences’ and get everybody to understand concepts. Past students said they liked the ‘nobody left behind’ classroom ethos I set out. The values-model is uncomfortable for scientists, in particular. A scientific-upbringing, like one has while you get a Ph.D., prizes the ultra-rational and eschews ‘values’ for data (click here for a discussion about science being inherently political).
Blending both the values-based and information-deficit models of teaching might be the right approach. We need to communicate information, but if we demonstrate to students why the subject matters, how it fits with their previously held ideas, or even provide space for them to blend their faith with known biology, then we move them away from irrational, ill-placed skepticism.
I had these concepts gnawing at the back of my head while I was teaching my introductory course (Historical Geology). There was one particular moment that help me see a blending as the correct way forward. In class I occasionally asked students to submit anonymous questions to me on note cards about either impending or just-covered subject material. I’m one of the only research-centric scientists these students might ever meet, and I know from conversations with students that they have questions that weren’t covered in the course. Sometimes I answered the note card questions in lecture alongside the regular material, like in my climate lectures. Other times they exchanged cards with 5 other people, then the last person decided if they wanted to ask that now-anonymous question right then. At the end of my evolution section I got the question “What are your values?” from a student. I used my answer to that question as my first slide when discussing climate change.
That’s me sharing a value that most folks should share: that truth is important, something that we should respect. I used it to set the stage for a series of lectures on climate change that talks primarily about the mechanism and past examples, but also talked about climate models, future projections, and why we’re still arguing about it.
The following are my suggestions for how to teach a subject that folks in your classes think is controversial.
I opted for an overt structure to the roughly two weeks that I discussed climate change. I went methodically through a series of questions, going from “What can change climate?” to “Has climate changed in the past?” and “Why might it matter?”. Touching back to the objections that folks have to climate change and systematically explaining why they are wrong is useful, and makes a really compelling way to organize your lectures. Just be sure not to reinforce the incorrect material by stating it as a statement, rather phrase them as questions. So, you shouldn’t say things like “‘Climate changes all the time, so it doesn’t matter if it does now’ is wrong”, instead it should be “Has climate changed in the past? Yes, but here’s why that’s important”.
Spend Time with Contrarian ‘Evidence’
I had a student bring up a conspiracy theory: the Rothschilds were funding research in climate change and if the research came up counter to human-caused climate change they’d bury it. The student then brought up a ‘fact’ which I’d never encountered before, which they said had been buried by the Rothschilds company. The fact was counter to a huge amount of real research. All I was able to do in the moment was to explain the way things really are, but if the student has decided that the underlying data is falsified it’s difficult to counter. Since then, all I’ve been able to find is an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory from the Napoleonic Wars and a Democratic DC Council member talking about how the Rothschilds control the weather. I still do not know where the student got their ‘fact’. I feel like I was under prepared to handle that interaction.
The index card activity that I mentioned above allowed me time to prep for these kinds of questions from my students, when I ask them for questions for the next lecture. I prompt them with “What’s a question that you’ve always wanted to ask a climate scientist? Something you heard about that sounds wrong or is confusing?”. On the spot, it’s difficult to do the due-diligence of tracking down the source of the student’s misconception. A student in another class wrote a question about Al Gore’s prediction of a sea-ice free Arctic Ocean by a certain deadline. The student missed several key points; it was about Arctic summer ice, Gore is not a scientist, the actual analysis Gore got that from was correct, Gore just used the most pessimistic number rather than the scientists preferred value, etc. Those aren’t facts I keep in my head, but I was able to collate them and present them one-after-the-other as a way to dismantle that piece of misinformation.
One way to view the interactions is as an accidental “Gish Gallop”. Dwayne T. Gish was a debater of evolutionary biologists. He was infamous for his rapid-fire objections to evolutionary science. He would place a simple objection, “There are no transitional forms,” and then another and another, then the scientist would need to explain why that’s clearly not true. The explanation requires a great deal more time. Any unanswered objection is then assumed by the audience to be correct. Such is the way in these classes. If you don’t clarify or correct a student’s point, that point is assumed to be correct, at least by the students you’re trying to reach the most, the ones that don’t accept the legitimacy of climate or evolutionary science.
In an ideal world a student would say, “Did you know crazy-thing-X?” and you respond, “I saw that somewhere, but that’s completely wrong because of A-B-C-D, and have you considered that person-backing-X does so because of E-F-G?”. It’s easier to catch something out of left field if you have some knowledge of the outfield.
Consider Your Approach
Telling somebody to their face that they’re an idiot for voting for somebody might be both cathartic and true sometimes, but it’s not that effective. Changing minds doesn’t involve hurling epithets, even if the president and his supporters are doing it (please see section My Perspective below for an important caveat). Scientists have facts on our side. Proving your point without literally cursing the name of the current president during a lecture in class is more effective than adding “*&@^ Trump”. Are you just venting your own frustration or are you trying to actively convince these folks who are wrong to join the correct side? By all means, force your students to grapple with the underlying long-term consequences of their voting choices, if they voted for him, but do it in the most effective way possible. Yelling at them is just going to stop them from listening.
An example: three students and I are having a conversation that explicitly turns to voting for Trump*. One student voted for Trump because Trump was going to redistribute wealth to the little guy, the other voted for Trump because Trump was going to engage in trickle-down economics (a failed style of economic policy that gives taxes breaks to the ultra-wealthy that then increases economic benefit down the class structure [it fundamentally does not work]). I tried to make sure they realized that they voted for him for polar opposite reasons, and that at least one of them had to be wrong about what Trump would do in office. Just like we try to do in education: making them walk down the path themselves, providing a guiding hand when necessary, and not just telling them, is more effective than yelling it at them (I’ll admit I laughed at the idea that trickle-down economics would actually be effective, but it took me by surprise).
I also spent a lot of time thinking about how the students perceived me as the messenger. I am originally from the Northern Midwest, where “hey guys” is a gender-nonspecific greeting for a group. In Texas it’s “y’all”, which is actually gender-nonspecific, unlike guys which is just used as nonspecific while being male. It’s very easy to adopt regionalisms accidentally or when it appeals to you for good reason. I’m living in the UK now and I’ve no reason to start saying trousers but I have. I fought the “y’all” change because it felt like the students would perceive me trying to co-opt their language to be more like them, which if you add me trying to push them away from strongly held viewpoints, would lead to resentment.
*This happened without me trying to get the conversation there. I try to discuss the political issues with my students, not the individuals involved in politics, when possible.
One of the questions that stuck out in my mind most from the folks who already accepted and had seemed like they might have a solid understanding of climate change was “Why do some people not believe in climate change?”.
Besides the word ‘believe’ in there, it’s a really astute question. Why is it? The physical basis is solid and fairly simple. The question ends up being more of a social science question. Leaving that unanswered though, falls into a serious trap. If you’re presenting the physical science of climate change you leave questions in your students’ minds. They know there’s another side to the ‘debate’. While the ‘there are two sides to every story’ journalism trope has plenty of faults, we’re conditioned to expect to hear the other side’s opinions. So cover it! Without it you seem like you’re trying to obfuscate.
Lastly, while this might lose your conservative students, it’s important to discuss with your students the actions that can be taken. While individual actions are useful and important, we all have our roles to play in conservation, those individual actions aren’t going to solve anything by themselves. The issue in climate change isn’t solved by one, two, or a hundred people starting to recycle (though that is a good end), it’s systemic change that is required to fix this problem. The end goal of doing this is to motivate the students to vote or to engage with their policy makers in some fashion. Them driving less is important, but the impact is not of the magnitude that we need.
I’m deeply uncomfortable with advocating for individual solutions. As a physical scientist teaching a physical science course at a public institution, it’s not really my purview to go into what solutions are politically feasible, unless asked. I explain the situation, I go through some of the solutions we have, and the implication is that the most effective one is to get involved politically. Because it is. That’s the solution to the community action; to involve the community in solving the problem.
All of this has been from my individual perspective. I’m a straight white dude in my thirties. I look, and probably outwardly project, a more traditional set of values than I actually hold. That affords me a whole lot of privilege in certain situations. Particularly in conservative areas there’s a baseline respect that comes with students having to call you ‘Sir’, ‘Doctor’, or ‘Professor’. It works, I think, really well to act as a Trojan horse for these students as someone who is not immediately othered within their views. For example, I don’t appear as and am not queer, so there aren’t quick barriers thrown up that my views or perspective is from ‘one of them’, similar to how when the words “climate change” are used, conservative individuals ignore the rest of the argument made.
So your mileage may vary. This advice may not work, some might actually be horribly counter productive for somebody who doesn’t have a similar background or the assumed respect that goes with being a white, male professor. I chose to keep my preferred pronouns out of my email signature while at SHSU, because that’s a clear sign I’m a lefty. Part of my privilege is that it’s not a life-and-death or job-or-no-job situation for me to fight for those rights. I don’t have the level of righteous anger of someone marginalized, targeted, or worse by our government, which allows me the privilege to not having to worry about getting into many possible unsafe situations. I opted to not engage on some issues in my first semester teaching, and to only deal with very specific battles. Making sure that I taught my course material, including those viewed as political, as effectively as possible seemed like a good first step.
A key question for society is how do we transfer the ability to understand other people’s perspective, to value one another? How do you teach somebody to care about other people?
I tackled that in a physical science class this semester. Since I teach Historical Geology, we spent time on climate change. Specifically, I implemented a climate change game in the class in which the students organize and lead a mock-United Nations climate negotiation. The exercise is designed to teach students climate awareness and the impacts of climate change on the global system. All of the materials to teach this exercise are available online for free.
At the end of our exercise one student wrote:
I learned that if we don’t start making changes right now, developing countries will be at risk.
I feel motivated to make changes. I will try to reduce my CO2 emissions and advise others to do the same.
Want the same outcome and understanding from your students? Here’s how:
I teach a 60 or 30-student Historical Geology course at Sam Houston State University. It covers a multitude of different subjects; from evolution, to the birth of the solar system, to the climate system. One of the aspects of climate science that I wanted the students to leave with was an appreciation for modern climate change, and how it affects individuals in developing countries (this course was taught in a Hurricane Harvey affected region). While this course doesn’t shy away from controversy, this is the first time that we had to address our modern political (ir)reality head-on.
Our activity was a mock-UN climate negotiation game. World Climate Simulation is a well-respected activity. It’s been used in a number of different contexts from high schools to practicing for UN negotiations, and is available in several different languages.
In my course we played the 6-region version. There were delegations from the United States, European Union, Other Developed Countries (Russia, Australia, etc.), China, India, and Other Developing Countries. Each student gets a page (front and back) write up about their region and its position on climate related issues.
The goal of the exercise is to keep the world to 2°C of warming and to have $100 billion in the Green Climate Fund. Using this game in class gives students a taste for the complicated nature of these negotiations and an understanding of how the climate system works. The game in particularhighlights the difficulty of being in a developing nation, by making abundantly clear the inequity between groups. The students also see, by experimenting themselves, how quickly emissions have to peak and reduce to keep us at 2°C. Gaming wise, in the end, the students should get that the key is to reduce the consumption of developed nations, and for those nations to include enough money into the Green Climate Fund to allow the developing nations to skip the fossil fuel age.
Here’s how the game works in practice
The facilitator (the teacher/instructor) opens the summit with an address asking the delegates to feel the full weight of their duties, and to consider the world they would like their children to live in. Then, they attempt set several positions:
Year to peak emissions
Year to begin reducing emissions
Yearly percentage of reductions
Contributions to the green fund
After the group sets their initial position they begin arguing with the other groups. After 20-25 minutes the summit reconvenes, the facilitator asks them to present their positions in 2 minutes each. Then there is a discussion of if they think they have made it. Lastly, their positions are transferred to C-ROADs, a complicated-enough climate model (click here for model), and the delegates can see how they did.
I had two helpers help me facilitate the course, Time Scavengers Editor in Chief Susanna Fraass and an upper-level geology student. They were most helpful the first day, as set up can be overwhelming when you’ve got 60 irritable undergrads. Each group has a placard to show their area. The more developed countries get snacks and tablecloths, while the Developing nations have to sit on a tarp. In one section the India delegation got a table and no chairs, while the Chinese delegation got too few, so several had to stand. Susanna walked around the room recording interesting events or statements from students while the upper-level geo student either made mischief as a fossil-fuel representative or helped with running C-ROADs and ensured everybody was ‘on-task’.
Group dynamics obviously play a big role in this. I found that in the smaller class ~5% of the students opted out and just played on their phones, while in the bigger one it was closer to 15-20%. I made attendance for the week of the negotiation 5% of their grade, so there were students that were less than enthusiastic about being in class who normally skip. In the coming semester I will probably have a few of the students in the larger class play the two lobbies, Environmental and Fossil Fuel, in order for them to have more to do. 10 students-per group was too many. The Fossil Fuel Lobby gets candy to sway emissions levels, while the Environmental lobby gets to make signs and organize a demonstration.
The way that the two iterations of the game preceded was very different. The 30-student class ended up modeling how climate negotiations proceed in 2017, while the 60-student class modeled circa-2015 negotiations. In the 30-student class, the US stayed at their table in the back of the room requiring other students to come up to them to discuss policy. When discussing policy, they were inflexible in their positions, even going so far as to attempt to run a scam on the Developing Nations. The US told the Developing Nations they would reimburse them for their additions to the Green Climate Fund (the developing world is to be the recipient of those funds, not pay in). They made a big statement about how they were going to engage their philanthropic community and advocate for individuals from the US to donate. None of that actually is included in the game, so it was in essence, ‘hot air’. In that vacuum the EU stepped in and attempted to lead negotiations with the rest of the world, though somewhat ineffectively. That is not a comment about the ability of the EU to negotiate in that class, one student in particular was giving her all. It’s more an observation that the ire in the room was directed at the US and most actions seemed to be inspired by anger in the directions of the US representatives roleplaying the Trump administration.
In the 60-student class the US took an active role in negotiations, mirroring the Obama administration’s more active role. In the middle of the second round of negotiations the US hosted a miniature G-20 summit behind their table, or a ‘G4’ where the US, EU, Developed Nations, and China tried to hammer out a deal. A EU representative found the website for the climate model and she was attempting to solve the problem for their maximum benefit while still trying to keep to 2deg C. She quickly reached a conclusion and then led her group in refusing to budge from their initial bargaining position. Though their initial position was fairly aggressive with its targets, the rest of the class did not agree with their inflexibility. Their inability to write their position on the board correctly also was met with shouts of displeasure from the other delegations.
The larger class also made for some more entertaining shenanigans. China, apparently unsatisfied with their ‘G4’ deal, changed their position on the board after seeing the other’s contributions to the Green Climate Fund. The room exploded in shouts, 30-40 students were pointing at each other while watching the transcription of positions onto the chalkboard. India and the US got into a shouting match with a representative from India saying, “We’re just trying to feed our people!” and the US representative throwing up his hands saying, “I’m just telling you what we need to have happen, man.” The Developing Nations, sitting on the ground in front of the board, snuck in to change the Green Climate Fund, adding a zero to a group’s contribution. The game builds in tension, and having to stretch it over multiple periods dissipates that tension, unfortunately.
Neither class solved the problem, but they got to 2.4 °C and both had 100-110 billion dollars in the Green Climate Fund. That’s far better than the real negotiations, as they’ve gotten us to 3.4 °C and ~10 billion. The quick influx of money makes it apparent that the students do not really fully understand the massive sums of money that are required within that fund, as they rather quickly built that up. From a purely gaming standpoint, the goal of the Green Fund is that the Developing Nations require massive capital investments to skip over the fossil fuel age. If the US, EU, and Developed Nations add money in too quickly, then the leverage for the Developing Nations is gone. It misses the difficulty of trying to decarbonize the developing nation’s economy.
At the end, there’s a discussion of why peaking emissions now is key to solving the problem, how the Green Fund money gets distributed, among other aspects. After I talked for a bit I had them talk through their positions, if they had individual goals while engaging in the game. This didn’t really work, but it did give me a chance to talk about the differing US positions in the different classes.
I had all the students write answers to three prompts:
1. What did you learn?
2. How do you feel?
3. What actions will you take?
We then passed the cards around so that each student passed cards 5 times, essentially making their card anonymous. They could then say their own comment or their card’s comment.
In the 60-student class it became quickly apparent I was being ‘trolled’ by the comments the students were choosing to share, which made the conversation fairly negative. It started as comments about the EU delegation refusing to negotiate, and then quickly turned to quoting the Trump administration’s position on the Paris Agreement (which would have been a good teachable moment, but I admittedly was flustered), followed by comments about how time could have been better spent reviewing for their final. Classes have their own energy, and that section had moments of general antagonism throughout the semester, though usually minor, so I should have been better prepared. I think with practice this portion could be engaging and useful, but it requires the facilitator to be ready to handle a variety of comments and to reposition the comments quickly. While I like having the activity come at the end of the semester, it does lend to a stressed student body.
The other, smaller, class had a much more genuine response. I expect a big portion of their genuine response was because of a statement from an international student prior to the card writing. She described how the activity had been gratifying, having been in the country during the Obama administration and seeing the change to today’s administration. She described the tone of the American diplomacy abroad these days, and described it in reference to the US position in the game we’d just played. That class was also more good-natured in general. They brought up empathy, and how they learned about needing to peak emissions early, for example.
Student response cards:
I don’t know what actions I could take.
I think the world is screwed.
I feel kind of scared with how our countries are handling climate change.
1. We need to get our sh*t together. 2. Scared for our future. 3. Be more conscious.
How do you feel? Absolutely exhausted.
I learned that no matter how much we try the world is screwed because of climate change.
1. From this I learned that this world is dying. I don’t like how sh*tty it is. 2. Sh*tty about how many people may or may not die.
37% of the cards were what I categorized as nihilistic or frightened. This is, frankly, not an unexpected response to an activity like this. I spent a lot of time talking about impacts in order to impress upon them the importance of engaging with this activity. Some of the folks in this group however, saw that this was a problem and said “It will take a lot more money to fix these climate problems. Not worth the money.” They also stated that they felt “Fantastic”. While that was one particular student, one might expect that statement from a more conservative audience. I attempted, in the moment, to describe the economics of climate change as a loan we take out that our children have to pay back with considerable interest, I’m not sure that analogy really stuck.
Some of these cards are also a peak into a group of students who are interested in the issue, however do not know what to do. While we talked about various responses to modern climate change, I am very wary of appearing like I’m advocating for a particular action. Many of the cards state the students are unsure of actions they individually can take, or that individual actions are ineffective. This is a particular point that I will try to address in the future, to describe the nature of climate as a collective action problem requiring that individuals, yes, do their part, but that the onus of action needs to be on governments to enact and enforce legislation.
What did you learn:
I learned how important these issues actually are. Our world is strongly impacted and if there is no change we will be drastically hit with consequences. How do you feel: Lost for words at the fact that the US is truly hated. What will you do: I will try to take part in the change.
I learned about the view of points of an outside nation towards the US, this experience gave me a chance to look from the outside in. I also have a better understanding of world climate, and how to go about finding a solution. I will continue to find ways to go green and continue recycling and not litter.
1. That several nations really can’t help as much simply due to the amount of poverty in their nation. 2. That it will take more open minded plans to actually make a serious difference. 3. I will try to keep my mind open to interpretation of how other countries function and operate.
I learned that the developing nations make a big difference with their changes. I feel frustrated and disappointed. I will talk more about the issue. Look for petitions folks.
I learned that getting all of the countries to come together is damn near impossible. We don’t care about each other enough. We need to see the bigger picture that is all of us as a whole. Be the change you want to see in the world. Live as green as possible.
I feel if we [are] to really understand each other and realize we need to have the same goal to better our world, we would come together.
I learned that if we don’t start making changes right now, developing countries will be at risk. I feel motivated to make changes. I will try to reduce my CO2 emissions and advise others to do the same.
I feel so small.
The last group is the most optimistic. While there is considerable anger expressed by the group, they wrote about the need for a group solution, and expressed frustration that it was so difficult for people to actually ‘care about each other enough.’ These are the folks that want to accomplish something to positively effect their lives. It’s roughly a third of the class. Given the pre-class surveys that I gave them at the beginning of the semester, there’s considerable movement on student interest in climate change and their desire to engage with solutions.
Advice for employing this game:
Make sure you have something to have a positive action they can take with their new desire to fix the climate. I have not solved that problem given the classroom setting, but I hope to by this time next semester.
10 students in each group is probably as large as I’d go with students. I know there are modifications for large groups in the facilitator guide, so check there if you have large sections. I think having a larger “Other Developing Countries” block and forcing them to negotiate within themselves before bringing their position to the UN would be fascinating, but too complicated.
Build a case for optimism. I had a lot of students walk out of that room without hope. That’s counter productive, when the goal of the activity is to give them an understanding of the scope, a feeling that they’re in this with lots of others, and then a guiding hand in what they can to do help in their way.
Inequity is key. While it may seem like a small detail, making the developing countries uncomfortable, and the US/EU feel like royalty adds tension.
The first round requires a decent amount of learning on the fly. While both sections caught on quickly, 5-10 minutes of additional time in that first negotiating round is very useful.
Be prepared for an adversarial comment within the ‘debrief’ period if this is an in-class activity. While the vast majority of the comments that I looked through were supportive of the activity, there are several that think it was a waste of time. Such is the nature of having 90 students engage in a, sadly, politically controversial game.
The main advise I have, however, is to do this. It is a phenomenal way to engage a class in learning about their world, and what is happening to it.
Teaching about climate change this year took a toll on me. I’m normally a resilient and fairly hopeful person, but diving into the current and future impacts of climate change commonly leaves a person shell-shocked. How do climate scientists cope with existential dread?
Scientists are people too. Some of us are young, many of us have kids. It is difficult to stare this problem in the face day in and day out, without feeling like you are watching a slow motion train wreck, with your elected officials stepping on the gas rather than using the brakes. I’ve decided that I’m going to share those feelings with other people. We’re starting with the current impacts. A second post will follow with the basics of climate modeling, and finishing with what we think will happen next.
What follows here is a small, incomplete collection of current climate-driven impacts and assorted links to other information. I’ve tried to keep it to just impacts that are established in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These are things that science can firmly establish as happening right now due to climate change.
Hydrological (Water) Cycle
We can currently say there are substantial changes to where and how rain and snow fall because of climate change. These changes have altered our ability to use water, both in quantity and quality. If we look at Michigan as an example, it has an increase in yearly precipitation of 2/3 of an inch per decade since 1960. Massachusetts has seen >1 inch per decade (data here). Other states are not as lucky, and are currently seeing a decrease (e.g., California). Our freshwater is increasingly contaminated due to both low (drought) and high (flood) conditions in many locations in the US. 10% of counties are currently under high or extreme risk of a water shortage.
We, as humans, are at the start of these changes as well.
If you’re curious what the US government has to say about water use changes, click here for the National Climate Assessment Water Use (from 2014) page. It also has very scary maps!
IPCC:In many regions, changing precipitation or melting snow and ice are altering hydrological systems, affecting water resources in terms of quantity and quality (medium confidence).
Click here to explore the National Climate Assessment site’s findings from 2014 on water supplies.
We can also say that animals, plants, and other organisms have had responses to climate change. Coral reefs are the easy and moderately better-knownconnection, what with nearly 50% of the Great Barrier Reef corals dead in the northern section. Polar bears are similarly simple. With the arctic warming faster than the globe, 3/19 tracked polar bear populations are shrinking, while we don’t have enough data to say anything about the other 9/19. At least one of the ‘stable’ populations has shrunk since 25 years ago (stability is a ~12 year average). More warm winters mean more ticks in moose territory. A warmer West coast means stressed salmon. And so on.
While a projection (estimation based on current data), which I’m trying to save until later, click here for a map visualizing how species will need to move to maintain their proper habitat in a climate-shifting world.
IPCC:Many terrestrial, freshwater, and marine species have shifted their geographic ranges, seasonal activities, migration patterns, abundances, and species interactions in response to ongoing climate change (high confidence).
Climate change also has a negative effect on crop growth. Unlike what Lamar Smith has written (R-TX, head of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology), we do not expect there to be a benefit of increased CO2 in plant growth. Temperature effects far outweigh the small growth boost of higher CO2, and will lead to decreased seed yields. Climate change will shift where things grow; in some areas of India that used to get more snow there are new potato crops growing now with the milder winters. That’s good, but it’s quite the outlier. Wheat, rice, maize, soybean, barley and sorghum all respond negatively in rising temperature. Wheat production has already dropped 5.5%, and Maize by 3.8%. That is with our limited (in the face of what is projected) temperature changes so far.
Click here for an article by Scott Johnson that goes into more detail.
IPCC:Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts (high confidence).
Extreme Weather Events
Climate change also increases the chances of having extreme weather events. Importantly, we can’t say that an individual hurricane is directly a result of climate change. We can say, however, that they are more likely. We can say that they’re made stronger, when they do happen. Harvey and others aren’t because of climate change but they’re more likely to happen and be worse because of it. Storms like Harvey, or Maria, or Irma, or Ophelia (which even hit the UK!) are more likely, and therefore more frequent, because of our warmer world.
Wildfires (click here for more details) are also made more common, due to drier conditions in some areas. So are floods, where there’s an increase in precipitation. And heatwaves. And on, and on.
This will obviously stress our systems to care for those affected. Given this summer and fall, I shouldn’t really need to back up that claim with supporting data.
IPCC:Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence).
Climate change has cost us money, and it will likely continue to cost us. We can say this with a high degree of certainty. Wildfires, floods, storms, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, all have a monetary cost. The insurance industry is well aware of the increasing trend in the costs, and so keeps track. We can divide the cost of these natural disasters into things that will be altered by climate change (wildfires, floods, storms, droughts, so on) and those not affected by climate change (earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.). This acts as a nice check against our buildings being more expensive, disaster relief being more expensive, or something like that. When we do this, all of the climate-related costs are increasing dramatically (click here for more details), while those not affected by climate change are only increasingly slightly. The number of climate-related (or extreme-weather) disasters is increasing, while the number of earthquakes is flat.
IPCC:Direct and insured losses from weather-related disasters have increased substantially in recent decades, both globally and regionally.
Ocean Temperature Changes
Many of the ocean acidification impacts are similar or work alongside the impacts of increases in ocean temperature (click here for more details). Two examples: Corals bleach primarily due to temperature and their ‘skeletons’ fall apart in response to the pH. Similarly, when temperature rises, krill reproduce in smaller numbers. Krill are a key part of the food chain for things that people find cute, like penguins, seals, and many whales. Together, if those larger animals are stressed or starve, their predators die too.
Warmer water also expands, so a warmer ocean means that sea-level rise occurs more as well. This can magnify the storm surges, amplifies the effect of the melting glacial waters, and is generally a very bad thing.
Oh yeah, and the rate that the ocean is warming is accelerating.
Many things have changed in the oceans due to the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The first is that the ocean has absorbed quite a bit of that carbon dioxide. The pH has changed by 0.1 units since the industrial revolution. pH scales are not linear, so this actually is a 30% increase in acidity.
Marine life obviously feels this massive change. Because they are smaller and more fragile, larval stages of various organisms or plankton feel the effects first. While there are other things at issue (though research is working on detangling the others: water quality issues, low oxygen, or changes in diseases, etc.), the current rash of losses in the oyster industry are at least partially due to changes in acidity. The oyster industry is a $100-million-a-year industry. Click here for more details.
Corals, too, are stressed. Coral bleaching is due to temperature, but the material that corals make their skeletons out of is susceptible to acidification. It makes it harder for them to reproduce, grow, and live. They also dissolve and erode faster under higher amounts of acid.
There are currently more than a million other species living in coral reefs, making reefs some of the greatest spots of diversity on Earth.
Sea Level Rise
Sea level has risen between 10-25 centimeters. Because much of the coast is really flat, that means much more area has been lost than it appears. We think that the loss to property values is between $3-5 billion a year. In structural loss, it is $500 million. We spend a lot of money to keep the coast where it is too; like the $14 billion Louisiana is expecting to put into coastal barriers along the Mississippi River delta. In other areas, the coast just erodes and land disappears into the ocean. Click here for more details.
Click here for a neat NOAA page that lets you see what happens as sea level rises.
We know sea level rise also has a cost on communities and lives. An entire community, Shishmaref in Alaska, has lost 2,500 to 3,000 feet of land in 35 years. Other communities, Kivalina, Newtok, Shaktoolik, and others (31 in total) need to be moved according to the Army Corps of Engineers. At least one community has voted to move to the mainland, but without funding to move, cannot.
Climate change is a volume knob for social justice issues. That volume knob is sensitive.
Communities that are marginalized (have less political power, less money, etc.) are far more at risk in a changing world. If you have less power in society, odds are that a society under stress from climate change will be less likely to support you in the face of needs (even a lesser need) of a more powerful,other group.
This is referred to as ‘Climate Justice’. The People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C. (2017) was a wonderful example of how this has been embraced. From what I could tell, there were far more people there interested in social justice (indigenous communities, religious communities, etc.) than the scientists or folks who allied themselves with science at the march. It’s called the People’s Climate March for a reason. Click here for the NAACP’s page on Climate and Environmental Justice.
There is no clearer example than what happened and is currently happening in the US in 2017. Puerto Rico is not a state. Florida and Texas are. The US response to Puerto Rico which, again, is a part of the United States of America is the textbook example of this. Puerto Rico does not have representation in the federal government, so is ‘less important’ from a hardline (and inhumane) political point of view. The differing response from the federal government is a direct and obvious example of this IPCC finding.
IPCC: Differences in vulnerability and exposure arise from non-climatic factors and from multidimensional inequalities often produced by uneven development processes (very high confidence). These differences shape differential risks from climate change.
Climate change is currently changing the water cycle, changing how water resources can be accessed. We’ve seen that animals and plants are already shifting their habitats due to climate change. A specific, but very human-centric part of that is how crops are and will respond. Harvests, in bulk, are down for many of our grains. Climate change has already cost us lots of money, and will continue to.
Lastly, but probably most importantly, climate change is currently felt by disadvantaged peoples disproportionately. The US response to Puerto Rico which is a part of the US is the textbook example of this. Puerto Rico does not have statehood, so is ‘less important’ from a hardline (and inhumane) political point of view.
We cannot, scientifically, say that Maria and Harvey and Irma and Ophelia are because of climate change. Attribution is difficult due to the statistics involved. We can however say that the scientific prediction for what happens in a warmer world is larger, more damaging and frequent storms. That is what we experienced in 2017.
I just finished my first semester at Sam Houston State University (Sam for short). My position is a temporary one. I have a contract to teach there for a single academic year (Visiting Assistant Professor). The ‘load’ is a 3/3, three sections each semester. I teach two sections of Historical Geology, together about 90 students. In the fall I taught about 23 students in my Stratigraphy & Sedimentation course, and in the Spring I’ll have 20-30 in my Paleontology of Invertebrates course. I’m also the instructor for the upper-level labs. Sam treats labs as a part of the same course, while many other places consider the labs a separate, so in another University or College this would be a 4/4 (four classes taught per semester). I have not taught any of these courses before, though I was a teaching assistant (TA) for a course at the University of Massachusetts that was essentially a combination of all three courses I’m currently teaching.
Preparing 11 hours of lectures or activities a week, a total of ~165 hours (that’s roughly a week) of talking and guiding folks through science, is a brutal non-stop experience. Here are a few things to expect:
You are going to be seriously bad at it.
I was the top TA at UMass in Geology for a while, at least according to the award and recognition I got. When I lectured for Physical Geology I had students say “He’s the best professor I’ve had at UMass”. I was invited to talk to the incoming TA cohort about how to be a good instructor by the University one year. I am really good.
I was not good this semester. I know this. More than just an ‘aw, I wanted to do better’, I was just an acceptable instructor. My Sed/Strat class barely got to Stratigraphy even though I personally am a stratigrapher.
You will make some really harsh choices.
I knew that I had to spend more time on one course than another. I could either do a boring, mediocre job on both, or do a passable job in one and a crummy job in the other. I have 90 students for two semesters in my intro class (~180 total) and only 23 in Sed/Strat. Historical is the last time many of these students are going to be exposed to science in a classroom. Therefore, I view it as a moral imperative to do a decent — no, a good — job on that course.
I chose to spend more time crafting a Historical course. Making that choice was horrible, and I could tell that that my upper-class students knew I was phoning in some days. There were occasional times where I managed to work far enough ahead in Historical that I could spend time developing an interesting day in Sed/Strat. When that happened, the difference in the room was noticeable. I had students come to my office and tell me that it was a much better lecture and fascinating. It sucks to realize that you are failing a certain section. Make your peace with that, because it will happen. Maybe not catastrophic, but significant issues will happen, even.
You will burn out long before the students.
Before Thanksgiving I was just destroyed. In a single day four or five different students told me that I looked tired and asked if I was ok. It’s honestly hard to write about that because the burnout was so bad. I have never experienced that level before. One evening I went basically catatonic on the couch. It was, frankly, scary.
The only reason I’m still standing is that I made time for my family and slept over our Thanksgiving break. My wife and I went to a movie, the three of us went to the zoo, had a nice Thanksgiving. [Note: this was written in between the last lecture and finals.]
You will fail your family.
I, with all the stress, was a less patient father, quicker to loud frustration with my four year old. My daughter picks up on that and has become more quick to loud frustration as well. I was also, equally as apparent, not the husband that my wife deserves. I wasn’t able to listen to her problems as I was constantly going over new tactics to reach students, or designing activities, or worried I was not communicating important ideas. Even while not actively working, you’ll have enough of a stress level that you aren’t shutting down. It’s a tough thing to live through, but it’s apparently equally difficult to cohabitate with it.
Yes, it can be harder than the end of your dissertation.
Remember graduate school? Remember the push to your dissertation, when you didn’t sleep, you got heart palpitations because of all the caffeine? When you stopped taking care of yourself because you just didn’t have the willpower or time? When you got writing tunnel vision and all you saw when you slept was the blinking cursor of Word?
This is that, but instead of just your partner, your family, your advisor, or whomever, if you fail you aren’t just letting those about 10 people down, you’re letting down the hundred or so students, the professors that get them next who need to clean up your mess. The students don’t understand the stress that you are under. It will not occur to them, even if they personally are naturally disposed to empathy.
“Dr. Fraass, why do you look so tired, it’s almost finals. We’re stressed, but aren’t the professors basically done?”
“…. No, I have two interviews to prepare for, a conference that I’m presenting at and organizing a session, and I also need to write two exams, grade them, then figure out final grades.”
Your students will hate you.
I am a friendly person; I like to think of myself as very personable. If departmental culture didn’t dictate me using Dr. Fraass, I’d have all the students call me Andy, just like the departments I was in as undergrad and grad. I have students in classes that come and sit down during my office hours to chat, or make appointments for mentorship.
I was shown a private chat thread some of my students had going about the class at one point. Many of them hate me. I’m too hard, I don’t explain things, I don’t care, on and on. For the record, I hold nothing against those folks, at all.
With more than 200 people making an impression of you every year, many of them are going to hate your guts, particularly when you control their grades. Yes, some of it is griping or venting, or simply individuals dealing with stressful situations, not everybody likes everybody else. Nobody is 100% likable. With an N of >200, even 1% means somebody is going to be mad for a full semester. Factor in that when you start you’re going to hold folks to a standard different than other faculty, and it’s probably well over 1%.
Sit with that feeling. It sucks, but that’s part of the job.
What is this thing you call research?
I got the tiniest bit of research done. Even that was overly ambitious, but with a Geological Society of America talk and an invited American Geophysical Union talk to prepare for, I didn’t have a choice. I read a single (1!) paper this entire semester. It described the creation of a database, but didn’t have a strong analytical aspect to it, so it wasn’t like it was even a complicated paper to read.
I doubt I’m a unique case. Just accept that there’s a pause and you can’t do anything about it.
Create set pieces.
I am a stratigrapher, a paleoceanographer, a paleontologist, and a member of a number of other little subfields of geology. The most important issue of our time, and in my classes, is climate change. I carved out time to develop impactful lectures on past and modern climate change. I also spent time throughout the semester preparing for a week long mock-UN climate negotiation game. It isn’t ideal, but by deploying a really intense, interactive game in a confined window, it minimized the amount of time I needed to prepare, while still giving the students an experience. I had them fill out cards, so I know it made a heck of an impact on several of them. I plan on developing a game for evolution myself (a significant minority of my students come to me as creationists, due to a lack of understanding science and evolution itself) since that worked so well.
It also feels great to really nail the ever living hell out of something. You are good at what you do, but much of the semester is going to be spent feeling like you’re not doing a good job. Doing a lecture about something that you really care about is going to remind you that you can be a good, or even great, instructor.
Get into a faculty writing circle.
Getting your next job, or tenure, requires publishing. Without the faculty writing circle I got in, I would have gotten no research done. A faculty writing circle is a group of faculty that come together once a week and meet to talk about research and writing. It helps to provide some accountability to be productive during the week. I still only managed 30 minutes on a really good day, but that’s more than nothing. Teaching is a massive time suck, and there is always more work that can be done to do better. Having a group of folks that constantly encouraged me to do more writing, more research, helped with the pull from the students and my department.
You have to look out for yourself. You won’t be active in publishing, but try!
Manage your stress.
Ride your bike to work. Do yoga, play video games to shoot some Nazis for that cathartic release. Find something that you can do to help manage stress because this is going to be rougher than you expect.
And I’d expect it to be really, really rough.
Have a shutdown time.
There’s been a 8:00 PM work-stop time in my family since my time working towards a MS degree. I can’t sleep for hours after I stop plugging hard on something, so if I stop at 8 I have some time to slow my brain down. It also gives me time with my wife, even if it’s just watching Brooklyn 99 or The Defenders. Work will be there in the morning, and you’ll be able to teach better if you sleep.
Teaching isn’t writing. Your students will be able to tell if you aren’t in the moment. If you’re on 4 hours sleep, you won’t be in the moment. You’ll be on autopilot. They will be too.
Be as specific as possible when writing exam questions.
Technically amphibians are ancestral to a dinosaur, but the answer is archosaur, man. Give me a break. Also make your answer keys as you write the test. It’ll save time in the future.
Be OK with a bad lecture.
They will exist. They will happen. You’ll have bad weeks or a bad month. Students will stop showing up, even after just one. It’s ok. My attendance was ~50% when attendance wasn’t a part of the their grade (Normal Sam attendance with it being a part of their grade is much lower.) You are there to do your best, no matter how many are in the room. I gave mine 5% of their grade just for showing up to the last week of school, which I told them about for the entire semester. Only 58% showed up for the full week. You can only do so much.
You have some time to fix things that come up. There is time, because you’re creating this material on the fly, to revise how you’re developing materials. I changed the format of my exams after my first in Sed/Strat. I changed how I was giving out review materials too. Don’t go overboard, though. Think of it as refining your aim, rather than shooting at a different target.
That said, strive to do better. A bad lecture is something to fix next time, and to try to do what you can to not have it happen again. But it will. Keep notes on what didn’t work, or what did. I wish I had, it’d be worth the time.
Lean into the lecture format.
They’re faster to prepare. It just is. They aren’t the most effective, the students don’t react well to them as they’ll bury themselves in their phones.
Do what you can. Don’t lecture when you have something great, but be ok with them. You are in survival mode.
I want to leave you with one thing. I was talking to a friend a little while ago. She, being far smarter than I, told me:
The first year isn’t about hitting a homerun. It’s about getting on base.
Survive. Learn from your mistakes if you can, but most importantly: Survive.
One of the most enjoyable activities I got involved with while at the Smithsonian Institution – National Museum of Natural History was FossiLab. FossiLab is a windowed room where volunteers and scientists go about doing work that needs to be done in the museum. Some of the volunteers there do is look through sediment samples for tiny fossils. That’s time consuming work, but it can be done, and done well, with a few afternoons of training. Most of what the volunteers engage in re-housing fossils. Besides research and education, the Smithsonian also very importantly stores lots of items. The NMNH stores over 40 million fossils, and the fossils are only one part of what that particular museum has. Some of these fossils need to be put in new boxes, since the old ones aren’t doing a good job storing them anymore. So, they spend hours cutting new styrofoam to cradle to fossils just so, making new custom ‘housing’ that will keep the fossil safe for decades to come. This means I’ve gotten to see many cool fossils, like Miocene aged dolphin ancestors collected by the scientist who found (though didn’t name) the first Triceratops.
I, as a scientist, was doing research while I was in FossiLab. I study planktic foraminifera. In particular I’m interested in how their history is changed by climate. Can we detect how their evolution was altered by changing climates in the past? While upstairs in FossiLab I spent lots of time measuring individual foraminifera to understand their shape. I was doing this with forams which lived about 100 million years ago in a warm interval, trying to understand the evolution of one particular aspect of their shape. Certain species of foraminifera develop a ‘keel’, a build-up of calcite on the outer-edge of the shell. Yes, if you look at it just right, it does look like the keel on a boat. The question that we’re attacking is ‘did the keel develop from one lineage, or did several independent lineages develop keels simultaneously?’. This is important for a few reasons. The keel is a key feature of the test (internal shells), and has been thought for years to indicate that the foram lived deeper (though that’s not always the case). Also, much evolutionary research in forams depends on understanding how different species are related. We know this really well for the Cenozoic (65 Million years ago to the present), but the Cretaceous has several really important ancestor-descendent relationships that we just haven’t figured out yet. This is one of those. There’s a sign in front of the microscope that I used explaining much of this, and a little slideshow that plays with more detail.
FossiLab also has a door that lets the volunteers or scientists walk out and talk to folks. If people watched for a while, then I’d usually get up and go talk to them. I have a little tray filled with objects to talk about what I do. First, I’d hand them a tray of microfossils (which to a naked eye, look like sand) and ask them to make observations about what they saw. Usually I’d get “It’s sand!”. I then put the tray under my WoodenScope and show them that each ‘grain of sand’ they saw was actually tiny shells. We’d talk about what forams are, and how we use a big boat called the R/V JOIDES Resolution with a drill on it to get them. Describing coring goes like this:
“Have you ever stuck a straw through a cake?”
“Yes!” Oddly, 80% of the groups have somebody that’s done this.
“OK, so what happened? What’s in the straw?”
“But what’s on top?” “Icing!”
“Right, you get the cake layers. There’s icing on top, then cake, then if it’s a really good cake, there’s another layer of icing and more cake. The ocean is just like that, there are layers. The JOIDES is our straw, and we’re using the cores to sample the layers in the bottom of the ocean.”
Then we finish up by talking about what forams can tell us. We count up forams because if we have more of a kind that likes warm water, then we can tell the water was warmer at that time in that location, or more cold loving forams means colder water.
To finish the interaction, I let the kids or adults ask as many questions as they want. Usually it ends with the parents telling them they have to go.
Data: Chris and I developed a model to understand how good planktic foraminiferalisotopes actually are at recording temperature, and how important it is that a scientist uses a bunch of tests to measure the isotopes, rather than just a few. There’s actually no data in a traditional sense in this paper; we went back to theory, statistics, and math.
Methods: Chris and I wrote a theoretical model. Planktic foraminifera make their shells in a certain depth (or depths) in the water, and that depth has a certain chemistry. The model allows the scientist to say that the forams are mostly growing in a certain season and at a range of depths. Then the scientist has to decide to include how well the organism records the water chemistry (technically called ‘vital effects’), if the shell has its chemistry altered in the sediment (diagenesis), and a few other things including if there’s a chance that a different species (with a different ecology) got mixed in.
Results: Good results from stable isotope studies come from about 15 or so shells in an analysis, but it’s very dependent on the species and what the ocean structure is like.
Why is this study important? Given all the things that could go wrong, of which the parameters in the model are a part, it’s honestly a little surprising that planktic stable isotope records give the same results as the model. They do, which other folks have shown repeatedly. What Chris and I show here is that as long as you put in enough shells when you’re doing your analysis, then the record actually records what we think it does!
The big picture:Studying the ocean is tough, especially when we’re talking about the ocean from tens of millions of years ago. This paper helps show that despite statistical concerns some of us had with it,we’re doing a good job at recording the past.
Citation: Fraass, A. J., and C. M. Lowery (2017), Defining uncertainty and error in planktic foraminiferal oxygen isotope measurements, Paleoceanography, 32, 104–122, doi: 10.1002/2016PA003035.
Kennett, J.P. and Srinivasan, M.S., 1983. Neogene planktonic foraminifera: a phylogenetic atlas. Hutchinson Ross.