Students bridge the science-policy gap to showcase impacts of global change

Students bridge the science-policy gap to showcase impacts of global change

Instructors: Elizabeth Hadly, Alexis Mychajiliw, Sarah Truebe

Department: Biology, Earth Systesm

Course: BIO128/EARTHSYS 129 - Geographic Impacts of Global Change: Mapping the Stories

Audience: undergraduate students

Format: Two 2 hour sessions each week, including interactive lectures, class discussions, collaboration on group projects, and application of outreach technologies


We have entered an age of global change, an era accompanied by drastic political, economic, and ecological consequences. The large-scale nature of the environmental problems facing our planet poses significant science, education, and communication challenges. STEM educators and students can rise to these challenges by seeing global change as an interdisciplinary global experiment, looking to everyday public news sources to see these changes play out in real time and in real communities in comparison with the data generated in the primary scientific literature. By collecting the stories of global change and structuring them in a relevant scientific framework, STEM students can reach across the campus boundary and bridge the science-policy gap.

Learning Goals

“If these are such big problems, why aren’t you scientists shouting it from the roof-tops? And why are you scientists only talking to each other? Why don’t you give policy makers and the general public something we can use?” - Governor Jerry Brown of California

This course was developed out of a direct need expressed by policymakers for STEM professionals to engage with communities outside of academia in light of the urgent global changes our planet is facing. Students strengthened their scientific understanding of global change by identifying specific examples of global change in both the scientific literature and public media. Given the origin of this course, many of the main learning goals involved ensuring STEM students learn how to navigate and respect non-academic sources of knowledge, as well as how to place their scientific knowledge within an economic, political, and cultural context. As part of developing a science communication tool, students honed applied skills such as data management and ArcGIS online map construction, and enhanced their interviewing techniques by engaging with stakeholders and creating podcasts. 

Throughout the course, students explored their own personal role as a STEM student and global citizen, addressing the responsibility of STEM students to make scientific data widely accessible and initiating a dialogue about the role of public service in STEM.


In this course, students explored the scientific and human dimensions of global change, taking a place-based approach to view the manifestations of global change through the lens of diverse places and peoples across United States. As a community-engaged, project-based course, the entire class collaborated with a community partner, the National Security Council of the White House, to develop a global change communication toolkit -- in this case, ArcGIS Story Maps and podcasts -- that showcases the tangible impacts of global change already occurring in the US as reported by everyday citizens and the media, not just scientists. 

Each 2 hour bi-weekly session was devoted to a mixture of short lectures, class discussions, and data collection. During the first 2 weeks of the course, students were introduced to the scientific foundation of global change and learned how to effectively search the scientific and public media for examples. Global change, however, is a vague, all-encompassing phrase (literally - the entire planet and everything that is changing on it!), making it difficult to teach within academia, let alone to take the next step to disseminate the science publicly. As such, our course broke down the nebulous nature of “global change” into five tangible and scientifically relevant “key problems”: climate disruption, biodiversity loss, pollution, human population change, and invasive species & diseases. 

The next 6 weeks of the course involved hands-on training in stakeholder engagement/ interviews, data collection and management, and online mapping programs. To make global change place-based, as well as collect data in the appropriate quantity for our community partner, each student was assigned 2-4 states for the duration of the quarter. Students were then grouped into regional teams (e.g., Northeastern US) based on the National Climate Assessment of the US, to parallel the policy needs of our community partner. 

The last 2 weeks of the course had student teams pulling together their final maps, datasets, and regional reports. Students then presented their global change communication tools to our community partner and members of the Stanford community in a preliminary map release; a comprehensive website featuring all student communication products was released in Fall 2015.

“We have the opportunity to actually craft the future we want--one shared with species and ecosystems we want, the climates we can tolerate, and the lifestyles essential to build resilient global communities. Our class project puts local environmental stressors into a global change context.” - Professor Elizabeth A Hadly, Department of Biology

In-Class Learning Opportunities

Our bi-weekly meetings in the classroom were used to share knowledge obtained from sources and experiences outside the classroom, whether it was to update us on a particular project, ask the class for critiques on an idea, or share an exciting new graphic or news article.

As our course was grounded in the ethos of respecting knowledge from a variety of academic and non-academic settings and from people of different political, economic, and cultural backgrounds, our classroom did not follow the traditional model of a single instructor controlling the source and flow of knowledge. Rather, students were encouraged to develop their own expertise on their assigned states and region, and share this knowledge with their peers and instructors. This respect for multiple sources of knowledge in the classroom facilitated candid discussions at the intersection of students’ scientific knowledge of global change in the US and their personal experiences growing up in diverse regions of the nation.

In-class data collection activities took place in the form of small groups or “regional teams,” where students worked together throughout the quarter to develop their expertise of a particular region. These in-class sessions allowed team members to actively share their knowledge from one set of states to another, facilitating the identification of regional patterns based on shared economic or ecological features. It also allowed them to confer with instructors as needed to adequately analyze and place in scientific context the various types of information they were collecting for the map

Class sessions were also used to develop skillsets towards building our communication toolkit (ArcGIS online Story Maps and podcasts). For example, students engaged in stakeholder role-playing activities, where students were given prompts based on real California news articles, and were interviewed by other students. Students also brought their online maps into class for troubleshooting with instructors and received feedback on their data presentation choices from their peers.

Out of Class Strategies

The place-based nature of our course (states and regions within the United States) allowed students to maintain a dialogue across campus boundaries as part of the data collection process. For example, students contacted farmers, fishermen, and ranchers across the US to conduct interviews about how global change is impacting their livelihoods and ability to grow food. 

To connect students with community organizations already working to combat global change on the ground, students chose one of two field trip opportunities in California: Veggielution and Real Good Fish. Volunteering for a day at Veggielution, a non-profit community farm in San Jose, allowed students to see how urban farms can provide alternative sources of healthy, organic produce in food deserts. Listening to the stories of fishermen at Real Good Fish, a community supported fisheries program in Monterey Bay, provided students with alternative perspectives on what it means for the ocean to change, and how consumers can help encourage sustainable fisheries right in their local oceans. 


“Visiting the community farm Veggielution made the global change issues we were learning about very real for me. It's one thing to read about global environmental changes, even stories of what's happening locally. It's another to actually see how global change — in this case, California's drought — is making it harder for people to do their jobs and give back to the community.” - Charlie Jiang ‘16


Students were also provided with numerous avenues for personal reflection and discussion of class topics with their peers. The use of the Lacuna Stories platform allowed students to view each other’s annotations of required readings and directly respond to peer comments. Students were assigned guided reflection prompts, in which they connected in-class discussions with out of class experiences such as interesting new data or their field trip experiences. 

By working with a community partner outside of Stanford, students consistently placed their work in a larger context. Collaborating with a community partner on a national level to collect data and communicate global change ultimately provided a scope much larger than the instructors alone could provide.

“This class highlights the ways students can engage with communities on local to global scales  as equal partners, within and outside of academia, to understand the environmental changes we all face.” - Sarah Truebe, Director of Community Engaged Learning in Environmental Sustainability

For more info

Class website -

Pedagogy Article -

Individual Story Maps - 

The 5 Key Problems of Global Change

Regional Manifestations of Global Change

Farmers & Food Producers Respond to Global Change - Podcasts