$1M Awarded to Research Effects of Simulation, Mentoring and Project-Based Learning

Juliette Rooney-Varga talking to a class Image by Ed Brennen
Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga and a team of researchers are looking at ways to empower students to address climate change by advancing their climate literacy and STEM efficacy.

By Brooke Coupal

As the world continues to face the impacts of climate change, educators are looking for ways to empower students to make a difference.

Juliette Rooney-Varga, professor of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and director of the Climate Change Initiative, has teamed up with three researchers from Minnesota to examine the effects that simulation, near-peer mentoring and project-based learning have on students. 

Funded by a National Science Foundation grant totaling more than $1.1 million over three years, of which $108,000 is going to UMass Lowell, the research aims to develop an effective approach to advancing students’ climate literacy, STEM efficacy and critical thinking skills.

“We are looking at whether the approach enables students to learn more about the climate and energy systems, but also generates intrinsic motivation and a sense of identity within STEM and green careers,” Rooney-Varga says. “We’ll test the waters in Minnesota and develop a curriculum that can serve as a model for partnerships between high schools and universities around the country.”

The research team plans to recruit diverse undergraduates who will serve as mentors to Minnesota high school students by assisting them with the climate change simulator, En-ROADS. The student groups will use the simulator to test and explore cross-sector climate solutions.

Previous research conducted by Rooney-Varga, who helped develop En-ROADS, found that participants who used the simulator increased their knowledge about climate change, grew a sense of urgency about the problem and were motivated to take action. Her ongoing research, as part of the Climate Pathways Project, shows that participants are also able to identify effective climate policies, which she says is essential when it comes to exploring ways to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

“If we're going to have any hope of meeting our climate goals, we need to cut our emissions in half globally in less than eight years, so we don't really have time for ineffective policies,” she says. “Enabling people to identify effective policies is critical because otherwise we're going to be stuck with lots of experiments that fail, and eight years will go by really fast.”

Rooney-Varga knows En-ROADS is beneficial, but she is hoping this new research will show how the simulation influences a diverse group of students.

“I’m interested to know what effect this simulation has on underrepresented minority students, because we know that we need to broaden pathways to STEM careers, and we need to ensure that people from populations that have been traditionally disadvantaged have opportunities in building a green economy,” she says.

The researchers will also analyze how mentoring between undergraduate and high school students may enhance simulation-based learning.

Using knowledge gained from the simulation, the student groups will be tasked with creating a real-world energy transition proposal that would move their community toward sustainability. This will be similar to the Climate Mitigation Challenge, from UMass Lowell’s Rist Institute for Sustainability & Energy, in which students develop a blueprint for reducing the university’s or city’s carbon dioxide emissions by 10,000 pounds within 10 weeks.

The researchers have partnered with Minnesota-based organizations and the minority-owned clean energy business Renewable Energy Partners to connect the students with authentic climate change problems along with career paths.

“The students will have a chance to interact with people who are active in these areas and are from backgrounds like theirs,” says Rooney-Varga.

The researchers plan to use their findings to create a program that other educators can use to empower students to become leaders in addressing climate change.

“Our plan is to develop a set of tools that are scalable and easy for anybody to adopt, whether at our own institution or anywhere around the world,” Rooney-Varga says.