In some parts of the U.S., school buses are returning to school along altered routes, dodging acrid plumes of wildfire smoke or murky floodwaters. Even the students who aren’t feeling these effects are likely hearing about them. Waiting to greet them all is an array of science teachers who are rolling up their sleeves and getting ready to tackle a difficult realm: teaching climate change.
Cheryl Manning, a high school science teacher in Evergreen, Colorado, fluently ticks through the list of scientific concepts she uses to teach climate change: “I start with astronomy and move forward. I get into chemistry and how bonds work. We do the carbon cycle, the electromagnetic spectrum. We build the foundations of climate one piece at a time.”
Her depth of knowledge shows through: “In reality, the climate system is pretty straightforward to teach.”
But as president of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, Manning knows that teaching climate change is beset with potential challenges. “These days, there is toxic verbiage going on around science and education; there is an attack on just knowing stuff.” Undaunted, she continues confidently, “The reality is the data and the evidence. And we have all that.”
Florida paves the way to challenge textbooks
Managing a classroom full of kids is hard enough. But at the same time, science teachers risk being undercut by state legislators, school boards, or even residents who feel that teaching about climate change is value-laden, “not balanced,” or amounts to indoctrination.
“In sixth grade science, everyone was required to watch a movie on global warming,” writes Deirdre Clemons in her affidavit in support of a controversial Florida law. “The teacher did mention briefly that this is still a theory, but what impression are children left with when they watch a whole movie promoting this idea as fact?”
With the help of Clemons and others sharing her views, and with strategic efforts of the conservative Florida Citizens’ Alliance, the state passed a law in June requiring school districts to accommodate residents who seek to challenge instructional materials such as textbooks or lesson plans. Residents feeling curricular materials are unsuitable now have a legal pathway to contest the school’s decisions.
Idaho removes climate change altogether – for now
Idaho lawmakers updated their science education standards in January 2017, but only after removing five sections that refer to climate change. The proposed standards “didn’t seem to me to present both sides of the picture,” said Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, who pushed for the elimination of climate change language.
In an encouraging turn, the deletion of climate standards was a catalyst for more than 1,000 public comments and an overflowing public hearing at the state capitol in Boise. A state education committee is seeking ways to restore the standards, although likely in a way that makes them weaker than the original benchmarks that were removed.
Some teachers lack essential understanding
Climate science is a rigorous subject to teach, even in the absence of political or parental interference. The topic spans multiple scientific disciplines, and fewer than half of today’s educators received formal training about climate science in college. Given that cultural or personal values often interfere with acceptance of anthropogenic climate change, you have a recipe for uneven treatment of climate topics in the classroom.
A 2016 study of U.S. middle school and high school teachers revealed some unsettling trends. Around one-third of teachers thought that recent warming is driven by natural causes, or that human and natural influences play equal roles. Furthermore, 70 percent of middle school teachers and 55 percent of high school teachers did not know that the great majority of the world’s climate scientists conclude that humans are the primary driver of today’s warming.
Manning strikes a conciliatory tone: “Don’t blame teachers. They are doing the best they can with what they know.”
‘I realized I had to learn more’
Kelli Grabowski, an earth science teacher at Cattaraugus-Little Valley High School in western New York, was on the same path as many of the teachers in the 2016 study. During her geology undergraduate studies, “climate change just wasn’t part of the curriculum,” she recounts. “I was pretty convinced that it was happening, but because I didn’t know if it was natural or human-caused, it didn’t seem as urgent.” Grabowski initially taught “both sides” of climate change – that it could be driven by natural factors or human actions. “The kids would go along with it. ‘Oh okay, there’s two sides,’ they’d say.”
Five years ago, that changed. “I had some students who didn’t believe it at all.” Grabowski recalls, “They didn’t believe climate change was happening.” She was unsure of the science herself, “When I was challenged, I realized I had to learn more.” Grabowski started reading on her own, trying to unravel the controversy. “I was seeing, okay, there’s a lot of information that it is happening, and that it’s us causing it.” She continues, “I learned more about peer review that I didn’t quite know. I wasn’t a scientist. A lot of teachers don’t know this.”
But the silver lining was that her students saw her going through the research, which earned her credibility, particularly among the argumentative students. “They respected that I was continuing to learn about it.”
“That year changed my life as a teacher.”
From teaching ‘both sides,’ to statewide leader
Since taking online courses in climate change and learning as much as she could about the topic, Grabowski has become a leader in climate education. Now she infuses climate change into her earth science course. “We look at proxy data,” she explains. Student groups work with data from ice cores, tree rings, corals, and sediment cores, all of which reveal geologic clues about past climates. “The natural cycles that should be going on are not matching up, unless you put the human factor into play,” concludes Grabowski.
Because of her recent initiative to learn about the topic, she doesn’t see herself as the kind of teacher who simply preaches the facts. Her students work with data because “I want them to see how we could get this information for ourselves.”
The election of Donald Trump as President spurred Grabowski to up her game even further, she says. “Okay I have to do something,” she thought. With the help of colleagues in the New York State Master Teacher Program, she organized the Western NY Youth Climate Action Summit, which brought together 95 students from 25 schools to collaboratively organize actions they could take in their communities. “It was really uplifting. People were relieved that there was someone else that cared as much as they did.”
From tailpipes to trees
At Amherst Regional High School in Massachusetts, climate change has been a prominent part of the curriculum for more than 10 years. “It’s good stuff,” quips environmental science teacher Krista Larsen, who is visibly excited to be back in the classroom. Larsen’s favorite activity is the “cars and trees lab” where ninth graders measure carbon emissions from car exhaust and compare it to the amount of carbon uptake in the school forest.
The lab includes four days of field data collection – from the parking lot to the maple trees. “Then kids do a lot of math and sew it all together to figure out how much carbon is emitted by cars compared to absorbed by trees.”
The answer? It would take 10 to 20 forests to offset the carbon from school commuting. Larsen describes the students’ reaction to their result: “They go, ‘Oh we kinda suck.’”
But students needn’t dwell on the negative. The course wraps up with a large unit on alternative energy. “We build solar collectors. We calculate efficiencies. We test the blade angle of wind turbines,” Larsen says, smiling, “We have a lot fun.”
Larsen knows she’s fortunate to teach in a community that is accepting of the science. Even so, she lays a careful foundation: “Teaching with data is the most important thing you can do to overcome skepticism.””‘Using Click To Tweet
“Using personal data makes it personally applicable,” she explains. “It’s not just IPCC data. This is MY data. I’m measuring the carbon coming out of that car. It’s pretty powerful for kids.” She clearly embraces her role of educating the next generation to tackle climate change: “We can totally do this. I love it. It’s great.”
Meanwhile, Manning has weathered pushback in her 15 years of teaching climate science in Colorado. Most of that is in the past; now teachers across the sciences and humanities team-up to weave climate topics into the curriculum.
Even while teachers are in general agreement, Manning still encounters a range of outlooks in her students. She recounted a recent student who expressed skepticism about climate change. “He wore a certain red baseball cap,” she explains with a wry smile, clearly referring to the red ‘Make America Great Again’ cap.
He was reluctant at first, but by the time they completed a unit on climate change, “He did a good job. He showed he understands it.” At the conclusion of the unit, Manning checked-in to revisit his thoughts on the topic. “He said: ‘I have a much deeper understanding about the evidence. And there have been a lot of arguments at our table at dinner time.’” While Manning isn’t out to create uncomfortable dinnertime conversations, “I feel like I’m doing my job,” she says. “It’s gratifying.”
Because the effects of climate change will fall largely on the shoulders of the next generation, it’s all the more important to give them the science literacy and the tools to grapple with it. Soon enough, it will be up to them to make decisions for the rest of us.
The climate education community provides guidance to teachers, shares solutions to common classroom challenges, and supports teachers as they venture into tricky but important territory. There’s no question that groups opposing the science on human-caused climate change also are doing their best to spread their perspective throughout America’s classrooms, making it potentially confusing for teachers and students to sort out credible information. Some resources for teachers:
Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change
The Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change aims to help middle school and high school teachers strengthen their understanding of climate science.
“The book is especially helpful for teachers who suddenly find themselves teaching climate,” explains co-author Don Duggan-Haas. “For example, the biology teacher or physics teacher who is expected to teach an earth science course, or for the teacher who wants to bring more attention to climate in their curriculum.”
The book’s diagrams are designed to be easily photocopied and are copyright-free for educational use. Because science alone can be insufficient to relay the topic, “political, social, and psychological issues are given due attention,” and the book leverages “language, arts, and mathematics in telling these stories.”
In an interesting twist, a crowdfunding campaign is under way to send the Teacher-Friendly Guide to classrooms across the country. This is a direct response to the Heartland Institute efforts distributing climate change materials to mailboxes of U.S. science teachers last spring.
Since 2010, the Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN), in cooperation with NOAA, has offered guidance for teaching about climate and energy. The website is structured around the principles of climate literacy and energy literacy, with summaries of key topics and suggestions for bringing these concepts into the classroom.
Because finding accurate materials can be tricky in this age of fake news, CLEAN features a collection of heavily vetted classroom materials spanning a range of topics. The collection of more than 650 resources is freely available to all.*
The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) supports teachers through advocacy, professional development, workshops, and classroom materials. NSTA also helps teachers navigate the Next Generation Science Standards that tackle climate change head-on (see example), while encouraging data-driven learning, interdisciplinary approaches, and techniques to design solutions. The new standards have been adopted by 18 states and the District of Columbia.
NSTA was quick to respond to Heartland’s campaign, posting a list of free, scientifically accurate teaching resources and a rebuttal to what it saw as some falsehoods in the Heartland publication. Teachers can trade in their Heartland books for a free e-book, Ocean’s Effect on Weather and Climate.
*Editor’s Note: The author of this piece has a contractual relationship with CLEAN as a writer. She has at times co-authored works with Manning and with Duggan-Haas.