How our "brutal" climate is cooking kids' ability to learn

Australia’s extreme weather is not just ravaging the environment – it’s cooking classrooms.

A simulation broadcast as part of Craig Reucassel’s ABC series Big Weather (and how to survive it) demonstrated how elevated classroom temperature can impact cognitive performance.

The exercise was filmed at a school in western Sydney and supervised by Australian Catholic University clinical exercise physiologist Phil Chapman who monitored the students’ heart rate, body core (tympanic) temperature and skin surface temperature using an infra-red camera.

Students completed a computer-based test that assessed reaction time and mental acuity in both a thermoneutral (21C) room and a classroom heated to 38C.

ACU School of Behavioural and Health Sciences senior lecturer Dr Chapman observed how the oppressive heat affected the children’s ability to concentrate.

The impact of thermal load was clear. Average response time during the Stroop test plummeted by 40 per cent in the hotter classroom as participants’ heartrates increased by up to 20 per cent.

“It’s very uncomfortable and thermal comfort is very closely related to how well you learn,” Dr Chapman said. “If you’re too far out of that comfort zone then learning really drops off a cliff.”

The simulation was based on a study published this year in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy that showed students’ rate of learning decreases with an increase in the number of hot school days.

“It was utterly brutal working in that kind of heat,” Reucassel said.

Shot on the frontlines during Australia’s Black Summer of 2019-20, the three-part series aired on ABC and iview has delivered an urgent and empowering message of how weather is changing and what can be done to survive it.

Big Weather presenter Reucassel charted the 2019-20 summer as oppressive heatwaves set temperature records that lead to Australia’s worst fire season on record. Over this period more than 20 million hectares of forest went up in flames: a fifth of the continent's forest and an area twice the size of Belgium.

“If last summer taught us anything it's that we have to be prepared to deal with the worst,” Reucassel said. “Big Weather showed me the amazing strength of families and communities who know how to look out for one another.”


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