First Science Cafe of semester explores climate change and student classroom engagement


Matthew Clay, assistant professor in Teacher Education at FHSU, kicked off the first Science Café of the semester on Monday in The Venue at Thirsty’s. It was the organization’s 124th event.

Clay earned his Bachelor of Biology Education from Pittsburg State University in 2010, a Master of Science Education from Montana State University in 2014, and his Doctorate of Education from the University of Northern Colorado in 2020. His research interests are focused on environmental science education and rural equity.

The presentation, titled “Engaging Students with Earth Systems Remotely Using 360° Videos,” explored ongoing research and fieldwork on how 360° videos can be used in education. It is based on the goal of providing “equitable experiences for students with topics such as climate change, ecosystem changes, and geologic processes.”

“If you just go about your daily life, climate change isn’t something you usually see, especially if you’re not looking closely,” Clay said. 

When teaching environmental science, he highlighted a need to take things like the water cycle and other earthly processes out of textbooks and diagrams and point them out in the real world.

“When we take an idea and put it in a physical place, it gives it meaning,” Clay said. “Using this technology is bringing meaning to these concepts. The idea is to mirror how we teach outdoors, and bring that into the classroom.”

He explained that it’s not practical to show Kansas students an image of “two polar bears hugging on a single chunk of ice,” to illustrate climate change, because they could never walk out of their front door and see that in their immediate surroundings.

On the other hand, the polar bear image is clean and simple, in contrast to other forms of climate change evidence that are more nuanced.

Clay compared the polar bears to an image of a mountainside in Colorado covered in pine trees. Most of the trees had been stripped of their needles and bark, standing stark and dead against the last healthy trees.

He explained that most of the trees had died due to pine beetles eating away at them. The pine beetles were able to reproduce in greater numbers due to milder winter temperatures. This left the mountain forests much more vulnerable to wildfires through the blazing summer months.

The result isn’t as simple as “climate change is causing wildfires.” Rather, climate change is contributing to recurring imbalances in ecosystems, which in turn are setting off chain reactions that increase the likelihood of natural disasters– in this case, wildfires.

Clay encourages teachers to stay away from empty memorization in the classroom. Instead, present past and present observations, the evidence of experiments, and teach students how to use their reasoning skills to draw their own conclusions.

He says don’t just talk about what things are and what they do, but be specific about how they interact with one another and why that is. He argued that the most impactful classroom experiences depend on that intentional structure.

“When you do that, students have a sense of ownership,” Clay said. “It is their understanding that they processed and built…which is much more important than ‘Memorize this, I’m going to ask about it next week.’” 

Clay showed many photos of fieldwork with his students, capturing 360° videos through the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. He and his students placed cameras on tripods in different locations to record one-minute loops that would be stitched together and saved to observe and interact within a classroom setting.

Since he first began his research in this use of video technology, Clay estimated that he’s shot a total of 150-200 gigabytes worth of 360° video. Roughly 40 of those gigabytes were shot over that four-day Rocky Mountains excursion.

His two students who joined him on the trip are Elementary Education majors who are now using that research experience to write future lesson plans for their own classrooms.

“This has made me start to look at the world differently, because if I can get there, I can get my students there,” Clay said. “There’s also a lot of creative opportunities in that.”

At the end of his presentation, Clay said that he takes his two children along with him on his National Park trips to capture these locations in 360° video. He said he can do that regularly due to the education levels and incomes of he and his wife – that their children can have those experiences due to privilege.

That is why breaking down economic class barriers in education is the core of Clay’s work.

“Some people say that kids don’t go outside anymore; kids don’t observe nature anymore. That’s not entirely true,” Clay said. “Kids do actually do those things…some kids get to because of privilege. All kids should at least get the opportunity to interact and observe a place, and put some sort of perspective to it.”