This year the EGU embarked on a new journey into Africa to deliver its renowned Geosciences Information for Teachers (GIFT) programme to teachers in South Africa and neighbouring countries in collaboration with UNESCO and the European Space Agency (ESA). The topic: Climate Change and Human Adaptation. Jane Robb reports on the week’s events…
Set in ‘the windy city’ of Port Elizabeth (or PE if you’re local), in stunning 28°C sun, complimentary blue skies and a dash of wind, we made our way to the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s (NMMU) Missionvale Campus to begin the proceedings. Missionvale Campus is situated just outside Port Elizabeth, in the heart of surrounding communities. The campus is intricately connected to these communities, with a commitment to supporting the development of those local to Port Elizabeth through school education and lifelong learning – making it the ideal location for the workshop.
We were welcomed by Thoko Mayekiso, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Engagement at NMMU, followed by a short introduction given by the co-organisers Sarah Gaines from UNESCO and Carlo Laj from the EGU, and from our host Moctar Doucouré (from NMMU’s Africa Earth Observation Network – Earth Stewardship Science Research Institute, better known as AEON-ESSRI).
To open the workshop, we had Maarten de Wit (from AEON–ESSRI) discuss the importance of geology in understanding climate change. Maarten put geology and climate change into a South African, and broader African, political and social context. He focused on the African concept of ‘observing the present and considering the past to ponder the future’ – a notion that is summed up in the isiXhosa word Iphakade. Maarten introduced Iphakade in the context of Earth stewardship: scientifically informed, ethical and democratic management of both the physical and living systems of our planet. The Earth is a system, but so is our society. Because our society is reliant on the Earth, it has a responsibility to manage it. Therefore, we need to apply our appreciation of our culture and how it will change in the next 50 years to our understanding of how to manage the Earth system.
Echoing the need for systems thinking in managing climate change, Rob O’Donoghue spoke about the South African school curriculum on climate change. Rob highlighted the need for systems thinking to be integrated as a learning enhancement tool. He also echoed the usefulness of the past in learning about the present, not only in a geological context, but in a social one. Africans have lived through climate variability in the past and have met these challenges with innovative solutions in agriculture, animal husbandry, cooking, sanitation and more. Both applied their perspectives on the importance of understanding the socio-cultural aspects of climate change to teaching. They emphasised the need to help relate climate change to children, and stop it seeming scary and impossible to manage. By using stories, art, music and other culturally informed methods we can make understanding and responding to climate change more manageable for future generations.
During lunch (with amazing live local music providing the background to our delicious South African cuisine) we discussed what the teachers thought of the workshop so far. What concerned the teachers most was the need to make climate change accessible to their children without forcing an impossible change on them. In many African countries, including South Africa, people are aware that their daily practices are harming the environment. However, unlike developed countries, these practices are essential to survival on a daily basis. The teachers simplified the issue: environment is directly linked to survival in this part of the world. These people do not have the luxury to change their daily practices. If anything, this highlighted the need for workshops like this, which help teachers find different ways to engage the next generation with climate change in a way that means they can continue to develop.
Carl Palmer from the South African based Applied Centre for Climate and Earth System Science reiterated this point in his talk on how climate change affects us. He highlighted the fact that poor communities cannot deal with climate change in the way developed countries can. And yet, Africa is a large continent, rich in unique landscapes and biodiversity, with an incredible diversity of people too. As Guy Midgely from the South African Biodiversity Institute also discussed, Africa contains a wealth of natural resources as well as a wealth of variable climates and people. Carl emphasised the need to excite and inspire our children about what Africa has to offer, encouraging them to choose science. Not just geoscience however: we need them to address the issues of sanitation, malnutrition, health and politics in tandem with climate to make a real difference. In other words, rather than a threat, climate change is an opportunity to engage kids with science.
To compliment these insightful approaches to climate change education, the workshop integrated several presentations on the science behind climate change and areas where climate change impacts are being felt, including agriculture (Bernard Seguin), water (Roland Schulze), ocean changes (Jean-Pierre Gattuso), as well as remote sensing of the atmosphere (Michael Verstraete). These presentations opened up the discussion for how to teach children specifically about the scientific aspects of climate change: what happens to these different Earth systems in a changing climate, and how can we transfer this knowledge to children in the classroom? For the teachers, although there was a lot of information packed into a tight curriculum, this was incredibly valuable as it catered directly to the GIFT workshop mantra: reducing the time from research to textbook. These presentations gave teachers the opportunity to hear about the science directly from the scientists.
In addition to these presentations, we were also treated to demonstrations and practical exercises by Ian McKay, from the University of the Witwatersrand and the International Geoscience Education Organisation, Sally Dengg from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research and Carl Palmer. We experienced interactive discussions, marshmallows and chemical structures, solar cookers, production of carbon dioxide, acidifying oceans and exploding hydrogen balloons. To finish up the workshop, we watched the film Thin Ice and ended with a critical discussion on how the teachers will disseminate what they have learnt to their colleagues, students, communities and councils.
What we were able to take away from the workshop was the need for a paradigm shift in the way we think and educate about climate change in an African context, where the participants helped us understand how to make the global local. Climate change isn’t just a scientific issue; it is implicitly related to people, politics and survival. To engage children with climate change science, we need to develop a systems thinking approach, balancing global responsibilities while maintaining healthy lifestyles and valuing the cultures and perspectives of the very people we are trying to engage.
By Jane Robb (EGU Educational Fellow), Sarah Gaines (UNESCO) and Carlo Laj (Chair of the EGU Education Committee)