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Profs Win Largest-Ever GSE Grant

$2.2M From NSF Funds Climate Change Education

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Graduate School of Education Assoc. Prof. David Lustick is leading a research team that won a $2.2 million federal grant to study how ad space on subway trains and platforms can be used to educate the public on climate change.

By Jill Gambon

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $2.2 million grant to a team of researchers including two Graduate School of Education (GSE) professors to study how informal learning impacts the public’s understanding of climate change science. The three-year grant is the largest ever awarded to GSE faculty.

Dubbed the Science Express, the project aims to assess whether advertising space on subway platforms and trains is an effective means to engage commuters in learning about climate science. Principal investigators include GSE Assoc. Prof. David Lustick and Asst. Prof. Jill Lohmeier along with Prof. Robert Chen of UMass Boston, David Rabkin, director of current science and technology at the Museum of Science, Boston and Hofstra University Asst. Prof. Rick Wilson. 

Two advertising agencies, Brodeur Partners and Bowman Global Change, will develop the media and an advisory board with about two dozen members from the MBTA, the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Washington, WGBH and other organizations will provide input. 

“We have a powerful interdisciplinary team working together,” Lustick says. “We think it will be an outstanding opportunity for informal science learning and climate education.” 

Lustick believes that out-of-home media, which include subway placards, billboards and mobile phone applications, have the potential to grab people’s attention. And he expects commuters will be attuned to the content since preliminary research showed that 80 percent of MBTA subway riders surveyed indicated they were interested in learning more about climate science, he says. 

“Our audience is highly motivated to learn,” Lustick says. 

The project follows the 2011 Carbon Smarts Conference which brought experts in transportation, communications, climate science and education to campus to examine the potential for media such as billboards and smartphone applications to impact learning about climate science.

The MBTA is donating $180,000 in advertising space on subway cars and platforms where posters or placards with information related to climate science will appear. Since the subway system will have 100 percent Wi-Fi connectivity by year’s end, the plan is to include applications that transit riders can access with their smart-phones.The applications may include “augmented reality” features, or views of the real-world that are enhanced with computer-generated graphics, video, sounds or GPS data with which consumers can interact through games, contests and social media. The material will change each month. All the information on the posters and placards will be reviewed for scientific accuracy. 

Lustick hopes the project will open up new ways of communicating and educating the public about science. Science education could take place wherever people are, instead of solely inside a science center, museum or school. “If this is effective we could use this model to improve the public’s understanding about other issues,” he says. “If we can engage people while they are commuting, we can change the way we think about informal science learning.”