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Shining a light on climate change

There’s no shortage of opinion on climate change, but what about facts? The National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) was chartered by Congress in 1990 to engage people in actively using environmental knowledge to ensure the well-being of the earth and its people. 

The Obama administration has continued that effort through the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, which launched a new Climate Education and Literacy Initiative in December 2014 to help connect American students and citizens with the best available science-based information about climate change. NEEF was part of that launch, with its proposal to develop a course about climate change that would help individuals, families, and communities understand and prepare for climate change and extreme weather.

A Social Innovation grant from Udemy played a significant role in helping NEEF get their message out to a vast online audience by making it possible to put their course, “Extreme Weather 101: Preparing for the Impacts of Extreme Weather and Climate Change,” on the Udemy platform in March 2015. Developing the course for Udemy’s convenient, on-demand, and easy-to-access marketplace served as a pilot project for NEEF to see how it could leverage technology to expand its influence. Based on the success of this first outing, the organization launched its second course, “Dealing With Drought,” in September 2015.

The process
Developing Extreme Weather 101 was a positive learning experience for NEEF. It was the first time they’d created a course in-house from start to finish, and they found the how-to materials provided by Udemy incredibly useful.

To make it happen, NEEF engaged employees with varied skill sets from across their organization to help define course content, edit scripts, narrate, and critique draft versions of the course. They were also able to leverage resources from a broad range of partner organizations to give the course credibility and a professional look. For example, NEEF drew on visual resources and scientific data from the 2014 National Climate Assessment, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, and a number of government agencies including NOAA, NASA and EPA. The use of engaging visuals to illustrate important concepts has been repeatedly praised by students.

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NEEF’s green screen set-up

Among the biggest takeaways, the NEEF team discovered that a high-quality online course can be developed with a small budget, using many of the resources and talents they already had on hand.

There were also challenges and lessons learned along the way. For example, writing, editing, and fact-checking the course scripts took longer than anticipated, but it was important to make sure the science was right and NEEF enlisted an outside reviewer to ensure accuracy. In addition, there was a learning curve with the technical aspects of filming and editing, and it took time for the team to get up to speed with more advanced features in iMovie. Now that they’ve got the hang of it, future course development will proceed more quickly.

The results
The subject of the NEEF course is certainly of great interest to the general public these days, and the team attributes its popularity and positive reception to the way it presents the science behind climate change and extreme weather in an objective and unbiased way. As one student commented, “Very well-organized lessons, good graphics, and even better infographics, plus excellent information on how to prepare for extreme events… I wish everyone could take this important and very well-done class.”

NEEF’s original goal was to enroll at least 750 students in the first month after launch. As of August 2015, nearly 1,200 students have signed up. Not only has the course attracted existing Udemy students and instructors, but NEEF’s outreach to their network of educators, broadcast meteorologists and their audiences, social media followers, and others has brought newcomers into the Udemy community. Quizzes embedded throughout the course indicate students are understanding the substance of the course too, with average scores exceeding 80%. The average review score for Extreme Weather 101 is 4.9 stars out of 5.

Maintaining momentum
Subsequently, NEEF built upon the success of Extreme Weather 101 to launch Dealing With Drought, which is intended to help the American public understand the science of drought and its impacts, today and in the future. The course also provides actionable steps individuals can take to reduce their water usage. NEEF also wants to understand how students are applying the knowledge they’ve gained and plan to conduct a survey among people who have completed their courses. One Extreme Weather 101 student, a Spanish teacher who’s also certified to teach earth science and English as a second language, shared that she plans to develop NEEF’s course content “into mini lessons to use for scout badges, or after-school activities.”

In general, students have expressed confidence that the course will help them achieve their learning goals. Having more people knowledgeable about the issues and implications of climate change is good for all of us living on this planet.

NEEF’s advice for aspiring Udemy Social Innovation grantees:

  • Take the “How to Create Your Udemy Course” course – it answered many of NEEF’s questions and provided take-away resources that they used throughout the production of Extreme Weather 101.
  • Take the time at the beginning of the process to create a course outline, timeline and plan for executing your course. Expect that you may encounter delays or technical difficulties along the way and build in time to address these challenges.
  • Leverage the skills and expertise of your staff. NEEF did screen tests with staff to make sure delivery of the content was clear. Other NEEF staff played a critical role in making sure complex scientific content was presented in an understandable way.