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What undergraduate students know and what they want to learn about in climate change education

  • Rebecca C. Jordan,

    Roles Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Funding acquisition, Investigation, Methodology, Project administration, Resources, Software, Supervision, Validation, Visualization, Writing – original draft

    Affiliation Department of Community Sustainability, Michigan State University, 480 Wilson Rd., East Lansing, Michigan, United States of America

  • Amanda E. Sorensen ,

    Roles Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Validation, Visualization, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation Department of Community Sustainability, Michigan State University, 480 Wilson Rd., East Lansing, Michigan, United States of America

  • Steven A. Gray

    Roles Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Funding acquisition, Methodology, Project administration, Resources, Validation

    Affiliation Department of Community Sustainability, Michigan State University, 480 Wilson Rd., East Lansing, Michigan, United States of America


Climate change education is of great interest to many in higher education. What is missing, however, is a sense of how students view climate change especially with respect to specific impacts such as changes to food systems. We designed a survey, which focused on climate change, food systems, and GMOs. We administered this survey in a large introductory undergraduate environmental science class and compared responses to demographic information. We found that students were knowledgeable in some areas more than others; especially when considering climate change drivers and mitigating factors. We also found that students were largely concerned about climate change impacts and wanted to understand the socio-environmental solutions that might help to mitigate potential impact. These same students, however, seemed optimistic that solutions could be found and implemented. Finally, while little demographic trends emerged, students who were more knowledgeable in one area (e.g., GMOS) tended to be knowledgeable in other areas.


Climate change (hereafter CC) education has been the focus of several national and international agencies (e.g., [1,2]), present in national and state curriculum standards in the U.S. [3] and is the focus of several classes in higher education [4]. As CC continues to intensify, so too does the need for the public to understand the necessary climate adaptation and mitigation efforts to combat this threat.

Several trends can be gleaned from the broad research on K-16 understanding of CC instruction and the associated actions to mitigate and adapt to global change. Firstly, students across the U.S. struggle with misconceptions regarding the causal elements of CC and the science behind how we know what we do about CC (e.g., [5,6]). Further, K-12 educators may not understand the science or broader context of CC science, such as food systems and the impact of food production technology, and many believe themselves to be limited to teaching factual knowledge to stand apart from activists (e.g., [79]).

A recent review of climate education found efforts to address conceptual knowledge alone is insufficient to enable public understanding of climate action [6]. These authors suggest that an increase of important authentic discussions, projects, and interactions with those who research climate warrant further consideration. Nonetheless, there is a potential for instruction to not only result in greater sophistication of conceptual ideas but also possible motivation to become involved in CC solutions [10].

Part of being involved in climate system solutions is understanding the nature of what is driving the excess carbon and other greenhouse gases (hereafter GHG) in the atmosphere. While many Americans can describe general issues regarding CC, deep knowledge is lagging even with increased educational efforts [11]. Energy consumption across the globe is discussed widely in the media, however, specifics about what is driving this consumption are not as easily found. Not surprisingly the role of the global food system (agriculture, processing, transportation, etc.), while driving a significant portion of the energy consumption (see Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations), is not well understood by many Americans. In fact, roughly 30% of GHG emissions come from the food sector [12]. Agriculture production directly impacts the emissions budget from vegetation loss, methane production from ruminants, and fertilizer use [13]. Further, agriculture is expected to intensify as crop yields decrease, especially in equatorial regions [14]. Genetically modified organisms (hereafter GMO) may provide increased efficiency and thus decrease overall agricultural impact [15]. Given the climate impact and opportunity to provide contexts to derive general climate knowledge, we decided to focus our study on general knowledge about climate with additional focus on the food system.

What is missing in the literature discussed above is a clear sense of how students, especially those in higher education, view CC, food system impacts, and climate education. In response, we surveyed science and non-science majoring undergraduates who were at different points of their college career with specific questions about climate science and the food system, CC mitigation and adaptation, and climate instruction. Our goal was to elucidate trends to guide future planning of higher education climate instruction across disciplines.

Exploring what students know

Our sample of university students came from an introductory undergraduate general education course focused on environment and society. This course was offered at a large Midwestern university and open to students of all standings. This group was chosen both out of convenience (one author was the course instructor) and because the group ranged from first year to upper class and featured science majors and non-majors.

We designed and validated a questionnaire with three sections: food systems, climate and GMO, and demographic information (see Table 1 for survey design, survey available on request). All work was conducted with participant consent and Michigan State University IRB approval.

Table 1. Survey construction specific content areas.

All items were Likert-type based items except those noted. Food systems questions were used as the context for the items because this topic was featured prominently in the course. The process of survey design began with a list of constructs the researchers were interested in and associating specific questions with those constructs. After item construction for each major content area, the authors shared them with colleagues and suggested edits were made. Next a group of naïve individuals chosen through a snowball sample were given the questions and these individuals were asked to discuss their answers to determine alignment between question and answers. Any questions where alignment could not be obtained were eliminated.

The survey was hosted on Qualtrics and administered to 122 students enrolled in Fall 2020 as the introduction to an assignment and students needed to advance through the survey to begin the assignment. Students were able to elect out their responses, thereby earning points for their time spent on the survey regardless of whether their responses were used for research purposes.

A total of 97 students completed the survey and consented to have their responses used for research purposes (see S1 Appendix for demographic data. None of the demographic measures were associated with student response categories).

Next, the open-ended questions were inductively coded in that all responses were read sequentially and either placed in an already written or new category. From there all categories were inspected by all authors and collapsed and each author recoded a subset of the short-answer response data and agreement was discussed. Once 100% agreement was attained, one author coded all data. These codes were then given a numeric value (generally used as nominal data; like our conception of Likert-scaled data). We next used a Multiple Correlation Analysis (MCA) to determine associations and possible trends. The authors designed this method to holistically view correlations that exists between items.

For student responses to open-ended items, see panel 1 (S1 Text).

For significant MCA correlations (p<0.05), see panel 2 (S1 Text).

What students want to know

The bulk of students (93%) reported CC as concerning, and 63% believe it is already occurring. Most students (88%) reported that it is not too late to reverse course with respect to climate impacts. Students also felt that CC should be taught in most science (88%) and social science (84%) classes; this was especially true of those students who recognize climate impacts as already occurring. When asked to pick one thing they would most like taught, 50% of students wanted instruction around concrete actions to address CC (see Fig 1).

Fig 1. Breakdown of topic areas students want taught about climate change.


Students were knowledgeable about some areas of CC but were deficient in others, which may prove important when considering development of future instructional efforts. When asked, students were able to provide reasonable responses regarding drivers of CC, but when given a list of activities that may or may not mediate CC, students were likely to go back to older ideas around environmentalism (e.g., recycling, population control). Higher knowledge around GMO issues correlated with knowledge around CC.

From our survey, half of our respondents were not knowledgeable about GMOs presence in the food system, although, the lack of understanding about whether genes were present in GMOs may indicate general naïve conceptions about biology. Students were also torn about whether consuming GMO plants results in changes to the human genome. While GMOs have been hotly contested in the public media for more than two decades [16], debates regarding CC have gotten more media attention [17] than other issues such as GMO. It is not surprising, therefore, that students might know a bit more about CC or, like many Americans, they know some actions might be most effective in mitigating GHGs, but they do not necessarily do them [18]. In addition, students highlighted actions like recycling or turning off lights as being particularly important but failed to recognize the ways these actions are important for mitigating CC impacts, and not necessarily the most important or effective. It has long been viewed that several elements of the individual and the context result in meaningful environmental action (e.g., [19,20]). It is clear from our data, however, that students who knew more about CC as related to experts were more likely to appreciate current.

Particularly notable is the extent to which students feel that they need further instruction regarding CC in both science and social science classes. The bulk of the students in our study indicated concern over CC and a major impact highlighted in the qualitative data was the effect of the changing climate on human mental health. Such concern over mental health is not surprising given the demographics of our sample group (millennial/generation Z) [20,21] but should also be a more prominent feature of expert discussion of climate impacts. However, students indicated that they need more education around CC action, especially with respect to understanding what to do to adapt and mitigate damage in the face of continued worsening of CC impacts. This concern felt by most of the students surveyed is emblematic of a broader eco-anxiety, which is defined by the American Psychological Association as a psychological disorder where individuals are plagued by worry regarding recent environmental crises such as climate change (see climate anxiety). Some students however are questioning the basics about how this environmental crisis occurred. We suspect that the latter has more to do with climate skepticism and denial. Post-hoc review of our data indicated that roughly half of those students who felt climate change was not of concern were those questioning its origin. A small number of students wanted to learn more about corporate involvement in creating and prolonging the climate crisis. A number of us have identified our students as identifying a growing concern around corporate influence in public well-being. This mistrust appears to be growing nationally in several areas such as individual privacy [22]. A final element that was clear in our data was the fact that students recognized solutions are not likely solely techno-scientific, but rather involve social will and political action.

We as instructors of environmental issues have heard the call from the students to focus on social science and mitigation/adaptation. We plan to increase CC instruction in our science and social science courses. Students crave deeper understanding of the social and scientific underpinnings of CC, but we argue they also need to understand the costs and benefits of implementing climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. To facilitate this, means doing our best as educators to teach students in terms of climate science, as well as the socio-economic and political systems that

Supporting information

S1 Appendix. Demographic data of survey respondents.


S1 Text. Contains: Panel 1.

Student responses to open ended items. Panel 2. Significant MCA correlations (p<0.05).



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