Poster Contest Combines Climate Science and Art to Educate Children and Adults

The Cool Science winners for 2019 pose inside a Lowell Transit Authority bus with their artwork Image by Tory Wesnofske
The 2019 Cool Science contest winners on a Lowell Regional Transit Authority bus displaying their artwork.

By Katharine Webster

For seven years, the Cool Science program has shown that children’s artwork is effective in teaching adults in the Lowell area about climate science.

Now, thanks to a $3 million National Science Foundation grant, Cool Science is expanding to include other Merrimack Valley cities and towns, the Worcester metropolitan area, Topeka, Kan., and the Kansas City metropolitan area, which includes Kansas City, Mo. That way, researchers can test whether it’s equally effective in another region with different extreme weather concerns.

“It’s Cool Science on steroids,” says Jill Hendrickson Lohmeier, associate professor of education and co-principal investigator on the grant.

Cool Science began in 2012 as a research collaboration between Lohmeier, the late Assoc. Prof. of Education David Lustick and Bob Chen, a professor of oceanography who was just named interim dean of UMass Boston’s School for the Environment. Stephen Mishol, an associate professor of art at UMass Lowell, joined the project first to help judge the artwork, and then later as a co-principal investigator.

Researchers Bob Chen, Stephen Mishol and Jill Lohmeier pose for a photo with a Cool Science contestant Image by Tory Wesnofski
Researchers Bob Chen, Stephen Mishol and Jill Lohmeier hand out awards for the best posters at the annual Cool Science celebration.

The researchers wanted to see if they could improve children’s learning about climate science through a poster contest, and also whether the artwork was effective at educating adults. Thousands of children from more than 100 towns in Massachusetts have competed in the contest since it was launched. Each spring, six or seven winning posters from different age groups have been displayed both inside and outside of Lowell Regional Transit Authority buses.

The researchers found that the students’ posters were good tools for informal education.  

“Kids are effective messengers of scientific information,” Lohmeier says. “Adults who saw the students’ art on the buses are more interested in and have more knowledge of the scientific material that we covered.”

Under the new grant, children and teens in all four locations will learn about and create art addressing a different topic for each of the next three years: heat transfer, energy and extreme weather events. The Cool Science researchers will judge the posters based on their scientific accuracy, visual appeal, clarity, originality and potential for engaging an audience. 

In the past, they have found that quite a few of the posters were not scientifically accurate, Lohmeier says. To address that, the new grant includes training for adult mentors who work with children and teens in informal settings, such as afterschool programs and community organizations, in each of the four locations.

One of the winners of the 2019 Cool Science poster contest poses on a Lowell Regional Transit Authority bus displaying his artwork. Image by Tory Wesnofske
Lucas, a second-grader from Winthrop, next to his winning Cool Science poster on a Lowell bus.

In this region, Cool Science is partnering with the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Lowell and the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association to hold a one-day workshop for 20 mentors, who will get training in the science education and artistic aspects of the competition. Adults from any organization that serves K-12 children can apply. 

Each mentor commits to working with at least 10 children on entering the Cool Science contest, which is also open to any child in Massachusetts, Kansas or Missouri. Lohmeier and her colleagues will then be able to see whether the students who work with trained mentors create more scientifically accurate posters than other children who enter the contest.

The researchers – who now include faculty from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, the University of Kansas and Kansas State University, in addition to the UMass team – will also learn whether the Cool Science model works in different areas of Massachusetts and another part of the country, as well as how those different contexts affect the artwork and learning.

In Kansas and Missouri, which have large agricultural sectors, many people view climate science through concerns about excessive heat, drought and violent storms that affect crops and livestock, says Lohmeier, who grew up in Kansas. In Massachusetts, students tend to focus more on the damage caused by extreme weather – hurricanes, snowstorms and heavy rain – and rising sea levels.

Students, their parents and teachers view the Cool Science winning and honorable mention posters. Image by Tory Wesnofske
Students, teachers and parents view the winning posters and runners-up at the Cool Science awards ceremony.

The new grant will also expand the Cool Science awards ceremony into larger art exhibits and celebrations in each of the four regions. Mishol says the children’s artwork has the potential to reach a much larger audience, and more children can see their work displayed.

“We want to be more inclusive,” Mishol says. “Visual arts have always been this great means for reaching people.”

Cool Science launched with a Creative Economy Fund grant from the UMass president’s office, which was renewed for a second year. UPS sponsored Cool Science for two years, and then UML’s College of Education supported it for three more years with help from Lohmeier and Chen. The Lowell Regional Transit Authority donated bus ad space for all seven years.