Translating science for young people: the case of climate change

To mark UKRI’s first attendance at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, we asked linguistic researchers Professors Alice Deignan and Elena Semino to tell us why language is so important when talking to students about science.

How climate change is communicated to young people is incredibly important: they, and their children in turn, will be living with its effects and the current generation of western teenagers are under a pressure to consume that was unknown to previous generations. Their choices as consumers will have a serious impact on the world we live in.

With this in mind, we set out on a project to identify and compare the ways that climate change is written and talked about by scientists, educators and students themselves.

To do this, we compiled three large collections of texts: one was made up of climate science from ‘expert’ academic and policy texts, one was from educational materials that deal with climate change and the other was transcribed from interviews with school students between 11 and 16 years old at four secondary schools in northern England.

We found a number of interesting and informative differences in the way language is used across the three collections of text. One difference that stood out in particular was in the use of the metaphor ‘greenhouse’.

Research has shown that metaphors are central to developing scientific ideas and are also an important teaching resource. We very often learn about new topics by comparing them metaphorically to what we know already; science teachers, for example, often depict atoms as miniature solar systems.

Not surprisingly given the topic, the term ‘greenhouse’ is used frequently by experts, educators and students alike. But on closer examination, the metaphor is used in very different ways by each group.

In the expert texts, the term is used in a highly technical way and always before another noun in phrases like ‘greenhouse gases’ or ‘greenhouse gas emissions’. Dr Susanne Knudsen – a Danish academic studying the use of scientific metaphors – found that scientists do not see them as metaphorical at all, but as technical terms like any other (Knudsen, S. 2003. Scientific metaphors going public. Journal of Pragmatics).

By contrast, in educational texts writers actively encouraged students to think about the literal meaning of the word. In one such text, students were encouraged to “think of how hot it is in a greenhouse.”

Finally, in interviews with students, the literal meaning of a greenhouse is referred to frequently. One 13-year-old student said:

“My mum has a greenhouse so I kind of like refer back to that. It’s where like, because at certain heights the sun is able to get into like the glass. It’s like, the earth is covered in like lots of glass panels but we just can’t see them, because the sun’s projecting into them.

“… it won’t come out, it’ll just keep coming in and when it tries to get out, it’ll just bounce off the roof and down in a continuous loop.”

It seems at first that the greenhouse metaphor is valuable as a teaching tool to encourage students to reflect in this way. But citations like this also suggest that the children may over-generalise from the greenhouse metaphor, and draw inferences that are not scientifically correct.

This is again seen in the responses from an interview with students aged 11 to12 years old where children were asked to explain the greenhouse effect:

Student 1: “Err... like in greenhouses, they trap heat in for plants to stay warmer and all that, and that’s happening to the earth. The earth is like the plant, and the CO2 is making like a glass shelter around it, and it’s trapping heat in.”

Student 2: “We have greenhouse things because then, the plants, when you put plants in there, it helps it ‘cos they don’t, they get like everything so they don’t get too much rain and too much sunshine, they have like a variety of different things”

Student 3: “It’s a mixture of different gases, it isn’t just one.”

Here, students discuss several properties of greenhouses: that they keep plants warm, that they are made of glass and that they help to nourish plants because they help them to get the correct balance of ‘everything’, such as rain and sunshine.

Only the first of these properties, that they trap heat, is the grounds for the greenhouse metaphor.

From the examination of this and a number of other frequent metaphors suggest that young people are very ready to engage with scientific texts and metaphors, and they enthusiastically bring their immediate, real world knowledge to interpreting what they read and hear.

Unfortunately, sometimes this leads them to think about science in a way that isn’t scientifically accurate and materials writers and educators should be aware of this tendency, and even consider discussing the limitations of metaphors with their students explicitly.

Project information

This project was funded by a grant from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, grant reference AH/M003809/1, project title ‘Translating Science for Young People’. A more detailed description of the project and findings is in Deignan, Semino and Paul (2017).

References

Brown, T. 2003. Making Truth: Metaphor in Science. University of Illinois Press.

Deignan, A., Paul, S. and Semino, E. 2017. ‘Metaphors of climate science in three genres: research articles, educational texts, and secondary school student talk’. Applied Linguistics (advance access)

Knudsen, S. 2003. Scientific metaphors going public. Journal of Pragmatics 35: 1247-1263.

 

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