Climate Change Education through Community-level Learning in Pittsburgh

by Lauren B. Allen and Mary Ann Steiner

UPCLOSE featured tents and booths at the annual Allegheny County Sanitary Authority open house and festival in September 2014.

In response to the coming challenges of climate change in the northeastern United States, many organizations around Pittsburgh have joined the Climate & Urban Systems Partnership (CUSP). CUSP is a five- year $5.9 million National Science Foundation grant awarded to four major science museums and two major university partners in four cities in the mid-Atlantic region: New York, N.Y.; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia, Pa.; and Pittsburgh. In these four cities, networks of diverse organizations—drawn from the education, government, environment, and community sectors—are working together on education and outreach to help the cities adapt to the conditions that we will see in the future.

The University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments (UPCLOSE) is leading the learning sciences component of the project for all four cities. Interventions are based on three design principles:

  • relevance, which allows people to see why they should care and how they can make meaningful choices
  • participation, which helps to create a sense of responsibility among those in communities
  • interconnectedness, which highlights how systems in the city and the environment are connected and the fact that collective city-scale actions are necessary to adapt to climate change

These guiding principles, grounded in learning research and the psychology and sociology of climate change, serve as a framework for CUSP hub organizations and their networks to design the platforms for engaging each city at a community level in learning to respond to climate change.

Each city has taken the lead in developing interventions to involve people in learning about and responding to climate change. We have been sharing our interventions and ways of working throughout the four cities, and UPCLOSE researchers are studying the impacts of these interventions as well as how the city- based networks grow and change.

In Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is leading a hub that includes a range of community partners, including the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, and Tree Pittsburgh—all of which are interested in engaging the city’s residents in learning to respond to climate change and its impacts. The Pittsburgh hub has been focusing particularly on building activity kits that the partners can take to community festivals and engage audiences all over the city with common climate-change education experiences.

The festival kits are hands-on activities that can be used to start conversations with a wide range of citizens and spark actions such as people posting their observations about climate to the CUSP online climate change map. One of Pittsburgh’s challenges in the coming years will be to control a rapid increase in combined sewer overflows during intense rain events. Some of the kits focus on solutions to control storm water, such as the use of residential rain barrels.

In Philadelphia, the CUSP networks are focusing on neighborhood- specific interventions, such as putting signs about climate change up inthe community, staging climate change-themed events, and working with local senior and youth centers. In New York, the CUSP network is focusing on digital tools and social networks to support an interactive map about climate change in the city. In Washington, D.C., the network is focused more on policy issues, with events that help staff members of governmental and nongovernmental organizations learn to interact with the public in educational venues.

In each of the cities, UPCLOSE is tracking how citizens learn and how the networks are collaborating and changing over the course of the five-year project. This collaboration represents a new frontier for informal learning research because the interventions take place as part of a linked city-scale intervention attempting to change what people know about climate change as well as but also how they use that knowledge for action.

Lauren B. Allen and Mary Ann Steiner are doctoral students and UPCLOSE members.