Scientists are developing a computer software application that may encourage kids to choose eco-friendly meals instead of fast foods.
The new educational software application is introducing middle school students to the topic of climate change and showing them how their dietary choices affect the planet.
The Food for Thought app displays a dinner plate that students fill by touching the computer screen and dragging their food selections onto the plate.
As students create a meal, the app graphically tallies the nutritional data and carbon footprint associated with each food item and with the overall meal, such as the amount of calories in a salad and the amount of water that would be used in growing the lettuce.
"There are two learning goals here: Make kids aware of the causes and impacts of climate change, and help them become data literate - that is, knowledgeable consumers of the media," said Emma Mercier, professor at University of Illinois in US.
Researchers videotaped groups of students from a high school in Illinois, as they explored climate change issues at the local and global levels.
The students examined various graphs, representations and images that were provided via traditional learning materials and on 27-inch multi-touch screens, while the researchers observed the amount of support that students needed to interpret the data and how they used the information.
The capstone activity of the nine-day curriculum was a visit to the Illinois Digital Ecologies and Learning Laboratory (IDEALL) at the university, where the students used the Food for Thought app on the lab's 55-inch multi-touch tabletop computer screens.
By entering information from food diaries they had kept over the previous weekend, the students were able to view the carbon footprints associated with their food intake.
They also were challenged to create a meal that had the least impact on the environment yet still provided sufficient calories.
"The teachers who observed their students' work in the lab said that even the kids who are usually difficult to engage were very engaged with this activity," Mercier said.
"The students saw that they play a role in climate change and that even the small choices they make do matter," she said.
The data that the research team collected during the trial will be used to better understand how learners engage in collaborative problem-solving and to develop technologies that support collaborative learning about climate change.