What Do You Mean by ‘Scalable’?

A reflexive analysis of teaching STEM students collective and inclusive solutions for climate change in a first-year writing program

Keywords: science communication, bending the curve, scalable solutions, climate change, climate solutions

For the University of California, 2015 marked a pivotal year for science communication as a public good for incoming undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors. The systemwide release of Ramanathan et al.’s Bending the Curve (2015; 2019) called on UC campuses to use university facilities and intellectual capital to tackle climate change. The report asserts that these “living laboratories of sustainability” (2019, p. vi) should develop sustainable technologies and share best practices to immediately reduce carbon dioxide emissions globally. STEM students, therefore, must know how to write about the climate science for various stakeholders. The report also argues it is the “responsibility” of “scientists, leaders, and citizens of the planet” to enact change “on a large scale” (Ibid). As such, Bending the Curve is geared toward a generalist audience, including first-year undergraduate students, who need guidance with the science. In 2017, the Warren College Writing Program (WCWP) at UC San Diego responded to Ramanathan et al.’s call to boost science communication literacy by introducing “Climate Change Ethics.” From 2017 until 2020, the course explored a spectrum of differences in beliefs, drawing from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication’s “Six Americas” research and Connie Roser-Renouf et al.’s 2015 study “Engaging Global Warming’s Six Americas.” Students also analyzed the role of (un)ethical science communication in media conflicts regarding climate change “doubt” in the United States (Oreskes and Conway, 2012). Between 2018 and 2020, nearly 2,000 first-year undergraduates enrolled in the course, which culminated with an explanatory writing project that asked students to determine which strategies worked best and were most ethical for communicating climate science to their intended audience. This paper highlights WCWP data collected between fall 2018 and winter 2019 from pre- and post-course surveys. The period paralleled California’s wildfire seasons, influencing project designs around concerns that students associated with climate change. Data provides insight about types of writing that STEM students consider “meaningful” and processes that constitute the production of meaningful and ethical projects. Data from 2019 shows a decrease in students’ desire to write about topics that are relevant only to their lives. The shift is coupled with an increase in students’ interest to write if other people can view their work. This paper unpacks challenges that writing instructors in higher education face when teaching undergraduates about “scalable” climate solutions. One challenge considers a neoliberal ethic, which centers environmental responsibility on individual behavior rather than climate policy or corporate accountability. Instructors’ reflexive feedback also underscores difficulties in institutionalizing inclusive solutions, which do not always fit within the framework of mainstream environmentalism.