Guest post - 8 minute read
Jo Harris, Educational Development Lead, Field Studies Council
Working for the Field Studies Council, I spend a lot of time outside teaching fieldwork skills to students, which is wonderfully fulfilling and gives me a real insight into what students care about. One of the most important topics students are discussing with their peers and us, is climate change. It’s in the forefront of their minds and a great worry for many. Although the A Level Biology A specification doesn’t have a specific climate change topic, in this blog I highlight areas and ideas on how you can incorporate climate change in your teaching.
In a recent BBC news report nearly 60% of young people approached said they felt very worried or extremely worried about climate change. And more than 45% of those questioned said feelings about the climate affected their daily lives. As one 16-year-old said: “It's different for young people – for us, the destruction of the planet is personal.” It seems critical that we, as teachers, must integrate climate change learning into our lessons.
Although climate science is not a specific topic in the OCR specification at Biology A Level, it has connections to many of the themes. There are plenty of opportunities to link areas of study to climate change and the consequences and impacts it will have. For example, students visiting FSC centres often complete PAG 3.1, within the section on biodiversity (Spec ref 4.2.1), where they design and undertake a study to measure the species diversity of two contrasting habitats. Climate change is noted in the specification as a factor to consider when understanding wider impacts on biodiversity (Spec ref: 4.2.1 f)
This can be a great way to used flipped learning. You could set up a homework task for students to research the effects of population growth, agriculture, and climate change on the biodiversity of a certain habitat. They could then feed back in class time before either investigating the current biodiversity of the area or looking at data sets from those environments and answering questions about how to sample the area.
At FSC Flatford Mill, for example, we look at the change in global populations in a rocky shore environment, especially of invasive species such as Chinese Brush Clawed Crab (Hemigrapsus takanoi), due to changes in temperature ranges. This can be a great case study on how climate change can indirectly affect the biodiversity of a community.
Integrating climate change into your scheme of work doesn’t always have to be an innovative task with a lot of detail. For example, when teaching photosynthesis, there are easy ways to include a more holistic approach. After all, examiner reports show that students find it difficult to apply their knowledge within a different context. Investigating the impact of climate change on the rate of photosynthesis can lead to further discussions.
We know that rising CO₂ in the atmosphere from human input affects subsequent planetary warming. Interesting research is currently being done around how the balance between photosynthesis and respiration might shift in individual plants due to this. Previously, scientists had measured the simple ratio between photosynthesis and respiration rate at a given temperature to estimate plant responses. Teachers could set up a challenge for students to plan a theoretical study to show how this could be sampled. This could link to investigative skills, control measures, etc.
The students can then read through a new study published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers have found that in warmer conditions plants change how they use carbon, using more for growth. By using more CO₂ for growth, plants are ‘fixing’ more CO₂ from the atmosphere as a store in leaves and stems.
The research allowed scientists to predict more accurately the response of plants to climate change using carbon allocation efficiency. Carbon allocation efficiency shows what happens after the CO₂ is taken in during photosynthesis – whether it is used for growth or respiration. The team found that as temperatures rise, plants can allocate more carbon for growth, effectively improving their net carbon gain.
Overall, this is a really interesting and topical look at scientific practice and innovation and, importantly for students, a little good news story about how plants may be more capable of compensating the negative effects of warming on carbon fixation than previously thought.
As Sir David Attenborough puts it himself in the BBC series Green Planet: “For years plant life has been largely ignored when talking about climate change, but as viewers will see from watching the series, the green ecosystem is at the heart of all life on earth and thus it’s vital that we tackle biodiversity and climate change together.”
In my experience, climate change can and should be used as a big picture theme that underpins the whole of the ecosystems topic (Spec ref. 6.3). It can give us a broad holistic view of ecosystems and their interconnectedness.
Starting with ecosystems, we think about the factors that affect abundance and distribution within ecosystems in three broad parts:
These are the foundations of study for this topic and help us to understand the whole concept.
Climate change is a great example of how all these things might change, which then impacts back on the abundance and distribution of organisms within ecosystems. Climate change impacts on many abiotic factors such as temperature, rainfall, and light intensity. We can look at the evidence for climate change, giving students practise in graphical, maths and research skills in understanding temperature graphs, dendrochronology skeleton plots and peat bog evidence.
We might then look at why this is happening, although probably more interesting is to look at modelling the future and what changes will happen. This brings us back to the biological impacts on ecosystems, at an individual species and population wide level. A change in temperature will affect cells, cells make up organisms and organisms make up populations, populations are part of communities which leads us back to ecosystems, etc.
This circular method of teaching the topic can help students pull it all together and brings the links between climate change and the specification alive.
Ultimately, climate change is a hugely important part of students’ current and future lives. By integrating these examples, and using the science to underpin their journey through Biology A Level, we can make them better, more inquisitive scientists.
For more information and free resources visit our FSC resources webpage and our FSC digital hub subscription.
More information: Bernardo García-Carreras et al. Role of carbon allocation efficiency in the temperature dependence of autotroph growth rates, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2018).
If you have any queries or questions, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org call us on 01223 553998 or tweet us @OCR_Science. You can also sign up to subject updates and receive information about resources and support.
Jo Harris is the Education Development Lead for the Field Studies Council, with responsibility for quality of education delivery across the organisation as well as leading the education team at Flatford Mill in Suffolk. Jo has a background in marine biology, but teaches ecology in general as well as geography and environmental science. Having worked for the FSC for nearly 18 years, Jo has an ongoing passion for environmental education, fieldwork and inspiring students to see the wonder of the natural world around them.