School students blaze trail in bid to help tackle climate change

School students blaze trail in bid to help tackle climate change

Earlier this year, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres referred to climate change as ‘the most systemic threat to humankind’. He certainly isn’t wrong. Climate change rhetoric can often be disheartening – all doom and gloom and time running out – but there are many groups who remain optimistic about our future and are doing their part to help improve our understanding of climate change. One such group is the students of Newhaven College.

Newhaven College is located in scenic Phillip Island, Victoria. The college has turned part of their 82-hectare school ground into a ClimateWatch trail – a walk that enables participants to regularly record what they see and in turn discover how their local environment might be changing. On the trail, students can connect with the environment, collect data, and contribute to a nation-wide climate change database to help inform scientists and environmental decision-makers.

ClimateWatch was designed by the international not-for-profit organisation EarthWatch Institute Australia in collaboration with the Bureau of Meteorology and the University of Melbourne. ClimateWatch encourages public awareness and engagement through the recording of seasonal changes in nature. This promotes the understanding and action necessary to sustain the environment. There are over 65 ClimateWatch trails all over Australia in botanic gardens, parks, reserves, and schools. Participants learn to identify and record the presence, absence and behaviour of different plants and animals over time. This data then contributes to a nation-wide database that allows us to better understand interactions within the natural world – for example, how seasonal changes in temperature and rainfall might influence migratory patterns in bird species.

A shift in seasons due to climate change would affect many plant and animal species that rely on environmental cues, such as this Eastern Yellow Robin. Image: Nadiah Roslan

Newhaven College is collecting particularly exciting ClimateWatch trail data. They are looking at how climate change will affect the phenology (cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena) of Australia’s plants and animals. This is something that few studies have examined. In fact, despite the significant threat of climate change to the country’s biodiversity, Australia has no system for recording phenological data on a national scale. Seasonal natural events play essential roles in ecosystem function; animals and plants use environmental cues to know when it’s time to migrate or flower. A shift in seasons would affect many plant and animal species that rely on cues such as temperature and humidity. Understanding these changes at the species level will be a crucial part of understanding how our flora and fauna are responding to environmental changes under climate change.

So what prompted Newhaven College to get involved with ClimateWatch? Earlier this year, teacher Ann-Marie Maclean saw an opportunity to both engage students in the outdoors and incorporate the trails into the science and environmental curriculum. As part of the syllabus, students learn when seasonal lifecycle events are expected to happen, such as the blooming of the Coastal Tea Tree and when Australian Magpies begin to swoop unsuspecting passersby.

‘The trail can be easily linked with curriculum from early years through to [high school] in many subject areas and topics such as climate change, biodiversity, … ecosystems, species identification, improving observation skills and many more’, Maclean says.

The trail isn’t just about the curriculum. ‘It fosters a sense of belonging to place, encourages observation of nature and empowers [the students] to help collect data for further research on climate change,’ Maclean explains.

Maclean encourages students to think globally, act locally and make a difference to their community.

Long-term citizen science programs in Europe and the US have shown that scientifically rigorous data can be acquired across large scales by engaging the broader community. Currently, over 23,000 citizen scientists are registered in Australia’s nation-wide ClimateWatch program, but ClimateWatch is always seeking new participants to join existing trails or create new ones.

‘The feedback from my students about the project was even better than I anticipated. They expressed high levels of personal growth, feelings of achievement and a stronger connection to place. Many have been inspired to start other projects to help the environment around the school.’

Using the ClimateWatch app along the Yarra Bend ClimateWatch Trail, Melbourne. Image: Nadiah Roslan

Rachel, one of Maclean’s students, says, ‘My experience of helping to create this ClimateWatch trail has been wonderful. I have enjoyed exploring the school grounds, going to places that I have never been and identifying species I had never heard of or noticed before. I am very excited for the future of this trail and that anyone interested in participating… can help major research happen.’

EarthWatch and collaborators are currently in the process of using the data collected on over 100 different species to produce models on current species distributions and where we might expect to see shifts under a warming climate. Eventually, participants will see the data they collected being used in environmental reports and publications with the goal of informing management decisions and policy.

The students of Newhaven College provide hope in the face of climate change, ‘the most systemic threat to humankind’. By taking time to explore and observe their local natural spaces, they now have new insights into what is happening around them and what changes are occurring. By cataloguing and sharing these insights, they are adding to a national and international body of knowledge on climate change. From little things, they say, big things grow.

For more information on how to get involved, visit the ClimateWatch website, in particular the Trails page. The ClimateWatch app can be used by anyone, anywhere in Australia for free.


Banner image courtesy of a Cabbage White Butterfly, Pieris rapae, courtesy of Nadiah Roslan. This article is not sponsored. 

Stephen McGain

Stephen studied a Bachelor and Master of Science at the University of Melbourne. His Masters involved investigating the impacts that dredging and climate change might have on the important seagrass habitats that exist in Port Phillip Bay. He is currently studying a Diploma in Conservation Land Management in the hope to further contribute his knowledge and skills to the local community.

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