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Quantifying student engagement in learning about climate change using galvanic hand sensors in a controlled educational setting


Teaching climate change is complex because it requires a system-level understanding of many science disciplines and also because students may have preconceptions about climate change. Previous work shows students learn and retain science content better when they are engaged in the learning process. Active learning strategies engage students in learning science, but the engagement impact of active learning has not yet been assessed in a controlled environment using both biometric and self-reporting tools. Here, we analyze 52 university students’ engagement during several common active learning strategies in a controlled research setting. We collected biometric data from all participants with hand sensors that measured changes in skin conductance as a proxy for engagement. Participants self-reported their engagement as a control. The combined biometric and self-reported data show that skin conductance data matched self-reported engagement, confirming that skin conductance is a robust proxy for engagement. Overall, dialog was the most engaging activity, with engagement levels about 165% above baseline. Non-science majors had higher average engagement than science majors (137% vs. 53% above baseline, respectively). Notably, skin conductance data showed no statistically significant differences based on participants’ political or religious affiliations. In summary, our results demonstrate biometric sensors’ potential to measure and monitor engagement in a learning environment. Relevant for climate education, in-class dialog increases student engagement in learning climate science and is especially effective for non-science majors.

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Funding for ALM, JEK, and AUG was provided by the National Science Foundation CAREER award (number 1554659). SR was funded by the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (award numbers EAR 1757930 and EAR 1461281) and the Boulder Critical Zone Observatory (award number EAR 1331828).

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Correspondence to A. L. Morrison.

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This study received IRB approval from the University of Colorado Boulder (IRB #18-0360). All participants provided consent to participate in the study.

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Morrison, A.L., Rozak, S., Gold, A.U. et al. Quantifying student engagement in learning about climate change using galvanic hand sensors in a controlled educational setting. Climatic Change (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-019-02576-6

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  • Active learning
  • Climate change
  • Higher education
  • Geoscience education
  • Student engagement