Interview with Liam Saddington, on his participatory research with schools, teachers and pupils, exploring just climate futures

In this interview, Liam Saddington discusses his work with climate education in both primary and secondary schools. We talk about two of his ongoing projects about climate justice and imagining a hopeful future. These projects also tie into his research with the Pacific and climate adaptation.

You are currently working on two projects around climate education and secondary schools – how did this interest develop?

Over the past decade or so, I have always taken an interest in outreach and widening participation. I think it is crucial that as academics we ensure university is seen by primary and secondary school pupils as a realistic option and to inspire them to want to come to university. Part of this is promoting geography as I think there is quite a large gap between how geography is taught in schools and at university. As my research career developed, focusing on climate change, geopolitics, and low-lying island states, I began to increasingly draw on my own research as a source of material when speaking to students. Consequently, I began to speak more and more with teachers about the strengths and weaknesses of geography education. Whilst on another research project focusing on schools, I began speaking to two geography teachers about the difficulties in running fieldwork in secondary schools and climate education. The project grew from those initial conversation.

The first project is with year 9 pupils (13-14 year olds). What discussions are you having with these children?

These discussions are introducing children to the idea of climate justice. We are designing a scheme of work which focuses on human geography and climate change. Students are introduced to climate science, but topics around geopolitics, migration, identity, and climate justice are not always taught to younger students. Year 9 is a crucial age for thinking about geography and climate change. For many British schoolchildren, this is the last time they formally study geography – so we wanted to ensure they are equipped for thinking critically about climate change. For those who go on to study climate change at GCSE and beyond, we wanted to give them experience of undertaking qualitative fieldwork that focuses on questions of climate justice. Given the increasing financial pressures on schools, fieldwork is often difficult to run. So, we have designed the fieldwork as low cost and suitable for schools to run in their local vicinity – indeed they do not even need to leave the school site!

The second project is developing a toolkit for primary school children. What topics are you covering with this age group (5-11)?

This is an exciting project that I am working on with colleagues from across the University. This includes colleagues from engineering, Cambridge Zero and education. We are creating a set of five interdisciplinary sessions all focused on climate change. These are focused on ideas such as climate mobility, advocacy, and imagining a hopeful future. Students undertake a range of activities – such as designing a sustainable island future, think about how they can advocate for climate action, and thinking about how climate change affects different communities around the world.

What has been the most rewarding or interesting part of these projects?

I think this most rewarding part has been working with such diverse groups of people. This includes teachers, colleagues from different departments, and of course the students! Academic research can feel like it operates in silos, but these projects have really facilitated interaction with a wide range of people up and down the country. It has been interesting to speak with young people about climate change. To some extent, students are more optimistic than you might imagine – especially given the growing discussion around eco-anxiety. However, some young people are concerned about the future – particularly with older students there seems real frustration with inaction both nationally and internationally.

What has gone wrong / what lessons have you learned along the way?

We have been trialling in schools across the country – this is generative in developing the materials. We had a great activity planned for the primary schools which involved students throwing balls (representing carbon dioxide) from one box to another. However, on a rainy day in a small classroom – this resulted in more chaos than we would have liked! You can carefully plan materials, and we have been tending to over plan to ensure we have enough – but certainly at a secondary level we are finding we need to significantly trim the amount of material. It is important to focus on a few key learning objectives from each lesson.

How do these projects link with your research? Do the two sides of your academic work inform each other?    

Firstly, these school-based projects are a fantastic opportunity to disseminate my research. Through co-creating these materials with teachers and other colleagues, I am ensuring that my work is reaching new younger audiences. Given my focus on the South Pacific, many children we are working with have not necessarily heard of some of these island communities – but they very quickly identify with how they are affected by climate change and interested to learn about what climate adaptation looks like in somewhere such as Tuvalu.

Secondly, I am interested in how young people think about questions of climate justice. Developing these school materials also provides opportunities to engage with young people in the classroom. Participant observation, focus groups and surveys not only allow us to develop the materials – but also provide an insight into how young people feel and think about climate change. We have also worked closely with teachers and we are planning on publishing work on their perceptions of climate education.

How can my school get involved?

We are hoping to publish both sets of material this summer – we would love to hear feedback from teachers about how they work, and if there is space for improvement. Let us know at:

Bio: Dr Liam Saddington is a Teaching Associate in Human Geography at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge and Fellow and Director of Studies in Geography at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge. Liam is a political and environmental geographer whose research focuses on the geopolitics of climate change concerning small island states in the South Pacific. His work explores how the relationship between territory and statehood is being reimagined in low-lying atolls in light of rising sea levels. Liam is interested in how young people think about the future and climate change, with a particular focus on climate justice. Liam is undertaking participatory research working with schools, teachers, and pupils to explore how young people conceive of what a just climate future might look like.

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