Just 15 years ago, climate change was not widely adopted as part of the public school science curriculum. Today, you’ll find basic climate science covered in many — but not all — states.

Science ‘isn’t about sides or rhetoric…it’s about evidence.’

Recognizing that students today will become leaders of tomorrow and that science literacy will inform their decisions, organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and federal agencies such as NASA and NOAA, among others, have developed science literacy curriculum guidelines for climate change education from kindergarten through grade 12. While science educators are beginning to embrace the guidelines, concerns remain in the ways climate change is taught in public schools.

Looking into the elements of state and local interpretations of climate change education can provide rich stories for media. Whether reporting on the environment, climate, or education issues, leading climatologists and communicators, such as climate modeler Benjamin Santer, of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, and Andy Revkin, Dot Earth blogger for The New York Times, have urged the media to examine how people are learning about climate change.

To begin, they say, take a look at how the subject is taught in public schools. Some background for media:

Science Education Standards Influenced by Politics

Climate change is taught directly in 30 states, and indirectly in 12 states, according to a study by the Technical Education Research Center for Earth and Space Science Education and NOAA. However, climate is absent from the science curriculum in eight states, including Florida, Maine, and Wisconsin (see PDF). What’s more, climate change education is under attack by those challenging the preponderant science, and some are trying to insert what most climate scientists view as anti-science views into the country’s classrooms.

Efforts along those lines abound and in some cases have succeeded. In at least three states — Texas, South Dakota, and Louisiana — laws exist to make sure climate change lessons are balanced equally with a denier’s point of view, if they are taught at all.

“The evidence that climate change is happening is clear. This is an issue that is not 50-50,” said Teresa Eastburn in a telephone interview. Eastburn is the education coordinator at the Boulder, Colorado-based University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which has held in-depth climate change workshops, webinars, and multi-week seminars for about 700 K-12 educators in the past five years.

“Science isn’t about sides or rhetoric, it is about evidence. There is a misconception that the science of climate change is up for debate. Now, politics has entered how science is taught, but [politics] certainly doesn’t belong in the science class,” she said. “I could see that it could be a part of a social studies course, about what to do about climate change. Social studies is where teachers grapple with politics, economics, and some of society’s issues.”

In Louisiana, Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, who has a degree in biology from Brown University, in 2008 signed into law the Louisiana Science Education Act, a bill that targets scientific theories including but not limited to the “study of evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” The bill goes on to say that teachers can supplement the state-approved textbook with other materials.

In Texas, the State Board of Education adopted a curriculum standard that requires teaching the view that humans are not contributing to climate change. A recent investigation by SolveClimate shows that even under mandate, teachers are largely ignoring the state law that requires them to include views of climate deniers in science education.

South Dakota may have the country’s most confounding and widely mocked state law to undermine science education. Passed in March, it requires educators to teach that “global warming is a scientific theory rather than a proven fact.” The resolution said, “Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but rather a highly beneficial ingredient for all life.”

More recently, Tea Party activists in Colorado’s Mesa County are calling for balanced education on global warming, according to a report in the Denver Post. The group, Balanced Education for Everyone, began its campaign in April to “remove the teaching of man-made global warming from science classes,” the article said. One of the activists has also petitioned the authors of the Colorado Student Assessment Plan test to remove climate change from the standardized test.

Is climate linked with evolution to make latter seem less controversial?

Climate Change Coupled with Evolution

Steven Newton is the policy programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education. His organization primarily defends the teaching of evolution in public schools. But, in a telephone interview he said that efforts to suppress climate change education are now increasingly riding on the coattails of efforts to stop the teaching of evolution.

“The link between climate change and evolution goes back a few years to the academic freedom bills that were introduced around the country,” he said. “Let me read to you four elements from a bill that just failed in South Carolina: ‘Biologic evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning.’ We are finding those four things in the legislation other states are trying to put forth. Why should those be singled-out for special scrutiny in schools?”

Newton said that by connecting evolution with global warming, conservative activists are influencing science education by touting these elements as “controversial areas of science, making things less obviously about evolution.”

Science Standards and Science Literacy

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS, has developed detailed information for educators on science literacy. Its materials are part of Project 2061, which has developed curriculum guidelines for what young pupils should know about science, including climate change, and is supported with grants from NOAA, NASA and the National Science Foundation.* Specifically, progression strand maps illustrate steps needed for people to be science-literate, the long-term goal of Project 2061. The progression maps cover 100 science topics. Here is a guide developed for teaching climate change.

AAAS developed national science education standards in 1993. These standards provide benchmarks on what pupils should be able to know and do from kindergarten through 12th grade. The National Science Education Standards, published in 1995, are still used today. Tremendous latitude exists in how states, school districts, and individual teachers interpret the standards.

“Right now there is not a straight line of influence between the standards AAAS advises and what is taught in schools,” Mary Koppal, of Project 2061, said in a telephone interview. “It is such a convoluted system we have. Every state develops its own set of science standards and while they reference our work and the work of the National Science Education Standards, it is such a messy, political process.”

Koppal cautions journalists to understand that the words “climate change” or “global warming” may not even appear in state science standards, which could make it complicated to report accurately. “While classroom teachers might be teaching the underlying scientific principles of climate change, it may be hard to find it explicitly stated in standards,” she said.

The National Research Council now is developing new science frameworks that will serve as a precursor to a new set of national science education standards. A draft of the framework is to be released to the public in July, with the final version expected in early 2011.

When Climate Change is Taught

In many states, teachers cover climate change within two main science education units: in Earth and space science and in environmental science. UCAR’s Teresa Eastburn said that, in general, students in sixth grade learn Earth science and they might not study Earth science again until high school, if ever. Most high school students skip Earth science altogether.

“For students in the college prep track, Earth science is an elective. Most college-bound students don’t choose to study Earth science,” Eastburn said. “They are fast-tracked into biology, chemistry, physics, and AP [Advanced Placement] something. Earth science is frequently reserved for kids who are not destined for college. The ironic thing is that a capstone Earth science class is now required for high school seniors in Texas, where climate change is legislated to be taught from a balanced perspective.”

What Materials Teachers Use

Eastburn said that some schools don’t teach climate science because their textbooks are out of date or materials are not available to them. However, she said, science teachers are seeking materials on their own.

Despite options from the National Science Teachers Association and other professional organizations, one unlikely teaching source has been the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program, which began in 1995 and is run by NASA, the National Science Foundation, UCAR, and the U.S. Department of State. Students have been able to localize their interests and monitor changes in the environment over time.

Climate Change Education and Local Impacts

Some states teach climate change in Earth science and environmental science by addressing issues specific to their state. For example, in Mississippi, students examine effects of urban areas on aquatic systems. Pupils in Rhode Island use computer simulations to predict the effects of increases in greenhouse gases on Earth systems, such as Earth’s temperature and sea level.

In Maryland, where 68 percent of the population lives in coastal areas, the state board has developed specific science standards that address climate change. The state’s Department of Natural Resources developed lesson plans for K-12 focusing on coastal hazards and how climate change impacts the shoreline, among other topics.

Additional Resources

U.S. Department of Education
National Center for Science Education
National Earth Science Teachers Association
National Education Association
National Education Writer’s Association
National School Boards Association
National School Boards Association Blog
Center for Public Education

*Minor edit made on 06/25/2010.

Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist and a fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, SESYNC, in Annapolis, Md. Her writing covers the environment, energy, food security, agriculture,...