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CLIZEN Teaches Climate Change By Letting You Be A Polar Bear For A Day

Researchers with the Climate Literacy Zoo Education Network never thought their project on climate change would end up as a permanent exhibit in Brookfield Zoo.

They originally intended to examine why some members of the public showed a lack of concern about climate change and struggled to make sense of scientific evidence about its impact on the environment. The team planned to offer Brookfield Zoo general strategies to educate their visitors on climate change based on the data they collected.

But the tool they developed to illustrate the effects of climate change was surprisingly popular with visitors, so much so that the group’s partner, Brookfield Zoo, is making it a permanent feature instead.

“It is certainly a unique context. It solidifies a nice partnership between LSRI and the Chicago Zoological Society that demonstrates how the great collaborations at LSRI are making impacts on local communities,” said Leilah Lyons, a co-principal investigator for CliZEN.

What Lyons and her team did was put a spin on the approach toward teaching the public about climate change, which is often told using statistics and facts – a little too dry, for some people.

They chose a more engaging approach, one that would mix a person’s ability to empathize and analyze material while experiencing it firsthand. Through an interactive exhibit called A Mile in my Paws, they opted to build on people’s empathy and illustrate what a warmer climate means for a polar bear’s ability to survive. According to Climate Change Education: A Primer for Zoos and Aquariums, empathizing with polar bears allows visitors to learn more from this interaction. It results in an educational experience that not only engages visitors, but also may be more likely to spur visitors to change their behavior and have less of an impact on the environment.

Using real-life scenarios to make a point is not new. But what was different this time, was that people got to walk a mile in the a polar bear’s paws—virtually. Lyons and her team created a tool that works like an Xbox Kinect. Participants slip furry, faux paws on to their hands and feet and use the paws to walk or swim as they watch a giant screen in front of them. The Paws system responds to visitors’ different styles of swimming and walking, and records their actions for graph plotting afterwards.

By doing this, participants are able to experience a polar bear’s exhaustion through their own physical movement. The exhibit links the zoo visitor’s exertion of energy with the virtual bear’s simulated calorie-burning, in environments modeled on satellite maps and projections of the arctic sea ice extent of the 1970’s, the 2010’s and the 2040’s.

“Its more popular than we thought it would be. We’ve had a really good response because it’s a novel thing in zoos,” said Brian Slattery, a research assistant of the CliZEN technology team.

But this interactive exhibit is more than just a fun digital game. The innovative, technological exhibit helps everyday zoo-goers tap into their mathematical literacy skills through graphs of their performance that are made while they participate. Afterwards, visitors interpret the graphs by making comparisons of how much more difficult it is to swim than walk. Interpreters at the exhibit then use the graphs to help visitors understand how “dry” data actually represent real-life phenomena, like the demands climate change puts on polar bears.

CliZEN is a $1.2 million project funded by the National Science Foundation to explore innovative ways to promote climate change education. The project is a broad collaboration that includes LSRI, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Chicago Zoological Society, and multiple zoos and aquariums in North America, including Brookfield Zoo. The current grant has come to an end, but the installation of a permanent exhibit allows LSRI and their partners to continue their research. The team is currently seeking funding to explore how to design mobile tools for assisting interpreters with mathematical literacy components of the project.

— Francisca Corona