Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences


A large body of international research confirms that misconceptions about the science of climate change remain common, despite the topic having been part of many science syllabi for more than a decade. This study explored students’ ideas about the key scientific concepts underlying the topic.

To do this, I developed the Climate Change Concept Inventory (CCCI), a 27 item multiple-choice diagnostic instrument. The concepts addressed by the CCCI were determined through a Delphi study of experts in secondary science teaching and climate science, and a review of research literature on students’ understanding of the topic. I applied a rigorous methodology for development and validation of the CCCI. This included writing distractors based on known student misconceptions identified in literature and student focus group interviews; application of item-writing guidelines; and statistical evaluation of item and test performance.

The CCCI addressed seven conceptual areas: the carbon cycle and fossil fuels; the electromagnetic spectrum; interactions between greenhouse gases and electromagnetic radiation; proportions of greenhouse and nongreenhouse gases in the atmosphere; feedback; equilibrium of energy; and conservation of energy. The first draft version of the CCCI was trialed with 229 students in Years 9 and 10. Sixty-eight undergraduate students also completed the CCCI; their responses were used for further statistical evaluation of the instrument. I conducted post-trial focus group interviews with 32 high school students to triangulate responses to the CCCI and to explore reasons behind their responses in depth.

I derived forty-five findings from the school students’ CCCI responses, and obtained corresponding post-trial focus group interview data for thirty-three of these. Twenty-seven of these thirty-three findings were corroborated by the focus group data. These included: overestimation of human contributions to atmospheric carbon inputs; overestimation of the proportion of ultra violet radiation in sunlight; lack of awareness of the water solubility of carbon dioxide and the role of oceans in the global carbon cycle; overestimation of the proportion of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; misidentification of greenhouse gases; lack of understanding of Earth’s energy balance and black body radiation; misconceptions about the nature of interactions between electromagnetic radiation and atmospheric gases; and limited understanding of carbon chemistry and the process of fossil fuel formation. Most participants were able to reason correctly about climate feedback scenarios but reported that they had not encountered these in school.

The study’s findings suggest that students in NSW Stage 5 (ages thirteen to sixteen) do not have the necessary accurate knowledge about the underlying concepts in order to comprehend the science of climate change. A number of recommendations are made for possible learning and teaching approaches to address misconceptions and lack of knowledge of these concepts.