Teachers should be front and centre of international plans to tackle climate change threat

By Owen McAteer posted 12-08-2021 12:19


As governments the world over are called on to produce “road maps” to tackle the threat of rapidly rising temperatures, following the UNs Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) stark warning this week that the 1.5C limit will be breached within a few decades, it is teachers and their pupils who need to be placed front and centre of these plans.

Like most major problems in life the issue is unlikely to be tackled by one magic bullet moment but by a series of scientific steps and technological innovations carried out by firms, universities and organisations in individual regions of each country.

This process will undoubtedly be started by those working tirelessly to develop green innovation now, but it is the young people who emerge from the classroom over the next 20 years and beyond who will play a key role in ensuring we finally succeed.

This can only be done by individual teachers in schools spread across towns, villages and cities equipping our young people with the education, understanding and skills to be innovative scientists and technologists.

Companies in STEM sectors often cite the skills pipeline of young people entering their industries as their biggest challenge to their growth, but it is those individual companies we are very much relying on, with each new innovation large and small, to deliver a solution to a major challenge that will impact the whole planet.

It can be done, as demonstrated by the response to Covid, where vaccines were developed not by a lone scientist in a lab having a eureka moment but by a series of breakthroughs, innovations and undoubtedly setbacks, which are just as important in demonstrating what doesn’t work, from scientists and researchers the world over, coming together to deliver success.

But who will deliver these young people in a position to innovate, problem solve and understand the science, engineering and technology involved – unquestionably teachers, delivering a love of innovation into their pupils.

STEM based firms in the North East of England are no different to those in regions the world over in highlighting that they are facing potentially significant skills gaps, but it comes as the infrastructure is being put in place for the region to play a key role in the UKs contribution to tackle the climate issue.

The Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen told The Times newspaper earlier this summer that a green industrial revolution was underway in the North East and, looking at recent investments, it is hard to argue.

Net Zero Teesside is delivering the UK’s first industrial scale carbon capture and storage facility.

GE Renewable Energy is constructing a huge new offshore wind factory in Teesside, which is set to open in 2023 and Blyth in Northumberland is home to ORE Catapult’s offshore wind centre, the UK’s largest facility for innovation and research in the sector. The region has also built up a hub of subsea firms designing, manufacturing and operating the subsea robots known as RoVs that will be required to install these windfarms, including SSEs Dogger Bank, located off the North East coast, which will, when completed, be  the world's largest offshore wind farm, capable of powering 6 million UK homes.

Teesside is home to the UK’s first hydrogen Transport Hub, which will include trials of hydrogen powered vehicles and follows on the success of the region in driving forward electric vehicle technology and infrastructure, which includes production of the Nissan Leaf at Sunderland.

To power the electric vehicle revolution Britishvolt has invested £2.6bn to construct the UK’s first battery-making gigafactory at Blyth with Nissan itself announcing it will invest £1bn to work in partnership with Envision to create a second gigafactory in the region, close to its Sunderland plant.

These investments will create tens of thousands of direct jobs and an even greater volume of indirect employment, as well as making the region a hub for incoming companies in the green technology sectors.

For this to all succeed and for the North East to play its full part, the requirement for young people to come through our schools with the requisite skills are vital. It is worth noting that skills is often a misinterpreted word and is not simply the ability to carry out a technical task. Developing skills is actually fostering in our young people the ability to look at a problem and come up with a solution – in other words the ability to innovate.

This ability needs to be instilled through all levels of education. Writing this week about how the North East is emerging as a driving force behind the transition to Net Zero Dr Henry Kippin, MD of the North of Tyne Combined Authority, and Professor Jane Robinson, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Engagement and Place at Newcastle University, not only stated, “It is vital that, as well as growing the jobs of the future, we support the development of the skills which will be needed”, but also highlighted that this will need to be done from primary to PhD level.

To achieve this we need to ensure we provide our teachers with the knowledge to link what they are teaching in the classroom to the skills needed to deliver this innovation. This is not simply teaching students about climate change.  It is about looking at subjects in a different way. It is about demonstrating how good use of chemistry, physics and biology as well as technology in general will provide us the solutions with which to take on the challenge of rising temperatures.

It will also require these industries to work with young people to inspire them to become their future workforce and to actively seek careers in these sectors. I have seen first-hand through our STEM Ambassador programme what a difference it can make to young people’s understanding and enjoyment of STEM when they undertake activities and projects with professionals from industry.

But also key is that these sessions raise aspiration in young people, many of whom may not have previously thought STEM was for them, when they lead their peers in these activities. They raise their perception of what they can achieve and demonstrate that far from being unattainable careers it is people “just like them” working in these industries.

In many ways the challenge of what we face now reminds me of the North East’s contribution to not only initial low carbon technology but also the Space Race almost a century ago.

In the mid 1920s a young apprentice at Newcastle based steam turbine builder CA Parsons, Francis Thomas Bacon, became interested in the potential of fuel cells, devices using hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, for pollution-free power.

He finally patented the first practical hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell in 1959, with the Bacon cell licensed by the Pratt and Whitney Division of United Aircraft and used in a successful bid to NASA for a $100m proposal to build the power source for the Apollo spacecraft which took astronauts to the moon.

I am certain we have a girl or boy who is the next Francis Bacon, the one who will develop something that pushes us forward beyond even their initial expectations, sitting in one of our classrooms now and possibly wondering if STEM is for them. We have a duty to our planet to ensure they succeed.

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1 comment



01-09-2021 10:36

As a long-time STEM Ambassador from the nuclear industry, I have delivered activities relating to various low-carbon energy options and discussed climate change with students (one of my degrees is in Geosciences). I recognise from personal experience that the interdisciplinary nature of the problem and potential solutions raises challenges in the somewhat bunkered academic environment of the school system. (It is one of the reasons why I personally mainly mentor CREST projects these days - I see more benefit from project-based learning in this type of area.)

However - and it is a big HOWEVER - a purely technical approach to dealing with climate change is missing a major dimension, which actually appears to be the major block to timely actions, that of human psychology (particularly how humans responding to crises and emergencies in conditions of uncertainty). We appear to have a considerable - almost unlimited - capability for self-deception. (We have seen the same in the recent anti-vax movement.) Even just talking about "climate change" is self-deception: it is now more accurately described as an emergency that will have a completely foreseable large impacts on the lives of our children and one that on any rational risk and cost-benefit evaluation (and this is my professional background) demands immediate vigorous and far-reaching action.

We did see a remarkable response to the COVID emergency: we could all appreciate the need for immediate action with images of over-crowed ICUs. Yet we are not responding in a comparable way to a climate crisis that is equally apparent to the experts, almost equally urgent, and will eventually have much more impact on a larger number of people. We are mostly, however, looking the other way.

And all this is entirely predictable, and in fact a well-researched area in psychology - and a reason for Daniel Kahneman's Noble Memorial Prize in Economics. I am a hard-science man, and get very much involved in understanding all the technical aspect of climate monitoring, prediction and change mitigation, but I have to say that while technical solutions and the people who will develop them are an essential part of the response (and I work at promoting STEM) my practical experience is that what we really need now are ways to change minds - and stating facts and predictions have not worked and apparently will not work until we all start to actually experience climate-stoked disasters - which is too late.

So, in my opinion, teachers also have a potentially important role in ensuring that children believe in the need for action - and go home to tell their parents.