DURHAM, N.C. – An intriguing new study by researchers at North Carolina State University and Duke University is giving added credence to the adage, “And the youth shall lead us.”

The study, published April 15 in the journal Frontiers of Political Science, shows that after listening to student presentations or watching student-produced videos about ocean plastics pollution and other garbage in North Carolina waters, local officials and voters reported feeling greater concern about the issue.

The study builds on earlier research by the NC State team that found that educating kids about climate change can translate into increased concern by their parents, too.

“Having already established that kids can have an impact across the dinner table, it’s cool to see that they can also have an impact within town halls, too,” said Jenna Hartley, a doctoral student in the NC State Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, who led the new study. “We also saw that kids could help close partisan gaps in how community members view this issue.”

In the study, researchers surveyed 165 adults – 65 voters and 107 local officials – who had either attended presentations or watched videos developed by approximately 2,500 fourth- and fifth-graders in North Carolina.

The students developed their presentations and videos after completing lessons developed by the Duke University Marine Lab’s Community Science Initiative on how plastics and other trash can end up in waterways.

The surveys asked the adults to rate their level of concern, on a scale of 1 through 5, about marine debris before and after the presentations, with 1 being extremely unconcerned, and 5 being extremely concerned. They also asked the adults to rate their level of support for policy initiatives on marine debris before and after the presentation on a scale of 1 to 5.

Adults’ concern about marine debris increased from an average score of 3.93 to a 4.42. Adults also reported greater support for marine debris policies, with their average score among all participants increasing from a 3.92 to 4.42.

“This shows that student-driven community engagement activities can result in intergenerational learning. Kids really can school their parents and elders,” said Elizabeth DeMattia, director of the Community Science Initiative and a research scientist at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

The researchers also found kids’ presentations could help narrow political divides, to an extent.

Conservatives’ average level of concern about marine plastics increased from 3.69 before seeing the students’ presentations or videos to 4.33 after seeing them. Liberals’ concern levels grew from 4.36 to 4.64. But support for policy changes to prevent or clean up trash in the oceans remains relatively polarized.

“We have a lot to learn about how powerful this effect is, how long these effects last, how big a difference it can make, and with whom,” said Kathryn Stevenson, assistant professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at NC State. “But so far, it’s really encouraging. Kids should take heart in that, and know they have power. And educators and parents should understand that kids have an important voice in the community.”

“Our work also underscores the power of collaboration,” DeMattia added. “Working with scientists, students, and local K-12 teachers, we created a yearlong curriculum that engages kids with hands-on marine debris activities and culminates in a community engagement activity where students share their learning with their parents and community members. We also collaborated with the NCSU Environmental Education lab to train North Carolina teachers in the curriculum and evaluate the role of intergenerational transfer in K-12 environmental education.

“By working together, we created a curriculum and teacher training program that gives K-12 kids agency and helps them work towards solutions to environmental problems,” she said.

CITATION: “Youth Can Promote Marine Debris Concern and Policy Support among Local Voters and Political Officials,” Jenna M. Hartley, Kathryn T. Stevenson, M. Nils Peterson, Elizabeth A. DeMattia, Savannah Paliotti and Thomas J. Fairbairn; April 15, 2021, Frontiers in Political Science. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpos.2021.662886