From environmental communication to action

18 June 2021

During the second year of her Master of Philosophy degree in Earth Science at the University of Hong Kong, while researching earthquakes in central Tibet, Smriti Safaya (Croucher Science Communication Studentship 2020) had, if not a eureka moment, certainly one that changed the direction of her life.

While accessing her emails, she stumbled on a news story about the 2004 capture and beheading of three engineers in Iraq. “It left me questioning,” she recalled. “I was safe in Hong Kong and that was happening five time zones away, but I asked myself, ‘what am I doing that has any impact or connection with this?’ I thought, ‘what are all these issues about – geopolitics, poverty?’”.

Safaya had had a passion for science since the stimulating primary science programme at her international school in Beijing, where her family then lived. But pondering what led to those events in Iraq set her thinking about the relevance of her plate tectonic studies.

“It kind of came down to education and where people’s ideas get formed and challenged, and I felt teaching might be the path that I might take.” She completed her Master’s, but in 2006, the day after submitting her dissertation, she flew to Canada to undertake a teaching degree at the University of British Columbia, following in the footsteps of her teacher mother.

Since graduating, Safaya has taught at Hong Kong international schools for 13 years, her fieldwork with students and her observations of what they did – and did not – gather from it now informing her full-time distance PhD studies at the University of York in the UK. As the recipient of one of Croucher Foundation’s first Science Communication Studentships, she hopes to answer a question troubling her about the effectiveness of environmental education.

“Our students know what the issues are, have a good sense of what the solutions are, but why were they not taking up the call to action?” How, she wondered, can teachers close this value-action gap and how can citizen science, in which the public collaborates with experts on the collection and analysis of data, contribute to that?

Teaching has led Safaya to citizen science advocacy. Inspired by overseas programmes such as Australia’s CoralWatch, involving students in data collection, Safaya began incorporating this in her lessons and became Hong Kong ambassador and education director of CitizenScience.Asia, promoting and supporting use and development of the general public in science.

She has taken more than 2,200 students on school field trips, and in 2017 and 2018 led two small groups to Sulawesi and Cuba with the environmental research and conservation expedition organisation Operation Wallacea. That had a lasting impact on them – most have included the environment in some form – law or science for example – in their tertiary studies. “Experiential education is more powerful than if you are just inside the classroom all the time,” Safaya said, noting the academic literature supports this view.

For her PhD research she is conducting programmes with eight local and international Hong Kong schools, observing student field trips, most studying biodiversity on their campuses, and conducting questionnaires, focus groups, and interviews with students, teachers, and citizen science project organisers.

Have the much-reported international student awareness of climate issues, demands for action, led by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, and student climate strikes had an impact? “I am encouraged that they knew what was happening, often could articulate cause and consequence, why we are experiencing the environmental issues that we are and how it connects to social and economic factors,” Safaya said. “What was often missing was the consistent action.”

She gives a simple example. Students join in litter collections on Hong Kong beaches but finish the day with bubble tea in a plastic cup with a plastic lid and a straw. “I’m sure they saw the connection but want and desire overrides that.” There are also systemic issues, including recycling “not done properly” in Hong Kong and recycling bins in short supply.

“This made me feel like the message has got out but the opportunities for action aren’t as clear or accessible. I have been interested in learning about the barriers to taking action from the point of view of the students.”

Although Hong Kong is often described as a concrete jungle, there is still easy access to nature. In other parts of the world – mostly western and wealthy developed countries – researchers measured student knowledge and science-related skills as a result of citizen science projects, but much less on the impact on potential behaviours, Safaya said. “That’s where my research is more unique.”

She has come a long way from her Grade 5 science fair in Beijing where, with talcum powder in her hair, she posed as a statue of Albert Einstein who had to be “brought to life” by visitors pressing a button. What next?

Postdoctoral studies perhaps, but Safaya hopes her science communication studies broaden her opportunities for passing on her passion for experiential science education. She wants to combine pre-service tertiary education for teachers with in-service work for classroom teachers, and still work with students. “I’m thinking about the idea of an interdisciplinary experiential programme with action days based on themes, collaborative learning – a kind of “Field School’”.

She has already drafted lesson plans drawing from life, including Hong Kong’s iconic bamboo scaffolding. “I’m fascinated by the physics behind the structure, inspired by the sustainability of the resource, the maths involved in building stable structures.”

There is also the role of bamboo in Chinese culture and poetry, the design and engineering of the scaffolders’ knots, and getting to know the people doing this risky job – “experts with great experience to share”, she said. Students would get the chance to create their own mini-scaffolds.

People sometimes judge others at face value, she noted, so it is important to guide students to see beyond that, to be open-minded and kind. “Cultivating such values is elemental in supporting youth to actively engage with issues that matter to them, be it in the environmental sciences or beyond.

“The greater the opportunity to learn amidst real-world issues, the stronger the relevance to one’s life.” That kind of experiential education can change lives, she said.

Smriti Safaya earned a BSc in Geology at the University of California, Davis, US, and an MPhil in Earth Science at the University of Hong Kong. Moving into the education field, she graduated with a BSc in Secondary Education, Science, at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and is now completing a PhD in Education via distance learning at the University of York, UK (2019-22). She was awarded a Croucher Science Communication Studentship 2020.

To view Smriti Safaya’s Croucher profile, please click here