When Teaching Climate Change, Knowledge Is Power - ASCD
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May 1, 2017

When Teaching Climate Change, Knowledge Is Power

Teaching climate change can be challenging and stressful—or an opportunity to pull together multiple disciplines and inspire students. Teacher mastery of climate science could tilt the scale.

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Curriculum

About five years ago, Tim Swinehart sat at his principal's broad, wooden conference table across from the irate parents of one of his economics students. The student's father, in particular, had a problem with the way the social studies teacher at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon, taught climate change.

"There's no scientific consensus on this," the father argued. "Why aren't you teaching both sides?"

This is the kind of moment that every educator who teaches climate change dreads. Yet, in a nationwide survey of 1,500 middle and high school science teachers taken during the 2014–15 academic year, fewer than 5 percent reported feeling pressure from parents, community leaders, or school administrators not to teach climate change. Still, when they are the ones sitting at the conference table, teachers and principals can feel ill-equipped to respond to concerns.

The same survey, by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and Penn State's Survey Research Center, found that nearly one-third of the teachers held two contradictory views of climate change: that it is primarily man-made and that it is primarily due to natural causes. The researchers are unsure whether the respondents were trying to indicate that they were teaching "both sides" of the climate change controversy. But their answers, combined with others, suggest that the teachers themselves may be confused about the science of climate change.

"For most teachers, the mixed messages about climate change are not because they are afraid of the controversy, but because they feel like they don't have a grasp of the topic," says Emily Schoerning, director of research for NCSE. "That's not a surprise." Teachers who were in school 10 years ago may not have heard about the mounds of data, from tree rings to ice cores, that lead to the scientific consensus on climate change, she explains. Multiple studies show that nine out of 10 active climate scientists agree that the Earth's climate is changing because of greenhouse gases introduced into the atmosphere by human activities.

Skepticism about the causes of climate change have seen a resurgence under the administration of President Donald Trump, who has publicly questioned whether human activity is to blame for the phenomenon. But so far that hasn't been reflected in opinion polls. A pre-election survey by the Pew Research Center found that 48 percent of Americans believed that climate change is caused by human activity (just 20 percent believed there is no solid evidence of global warming). After the election, a University of New Hampshire poll found that 65 percent believed it is caused by human activity.

The experts at NCSE suggest that teachers confronted with climate change denial in the classroom keep the tone respectful and remember that the student is likely echoing a parent or other trusted adult. However, they warn teachers not to get sucked into an unproductive debate. The tension in Swinehart's meeting eventually subsided, although the conversation didn't change minds. The teacher and his principal respectfully heard the parents out, and Swinehart calmly explained his own position. He knew his facts—and he had a supportive administrator to back him up. In the end, the father gained a better understanding of the teacher's philosophy; but they agreed to disagree.

Knowledge is the most important resource for teachers in addressing students'—and parents'—doubts about climate change lessons or political objections in the community. To teach climate change accurately, teachers must seek out training on the issue and use curricula that reflect trustworthy scientific research. To prevent despair in the classroom, they must also be prepared to help students feel that they can act on climate change and assure their own futures.

Although a solution to climate change could spring from the mind of a student sitting in a classroom today, there is another kind of urgency involved in teaching it—it's part of the standards. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)—including so-called "red states" such as Arkansas, Kansas, and Kentucky—and more states are expected to follow. The NGSS not only includes climate change, but the topic is a "core idea" for middle school students.

Seek Out Training

Erica Wallstrom, an Earth science teacher at Rutland High School in Vermont, has been to Greenland and Antarctica several times: first, through a fellowship from the National Science Foundation, and now in her role as lead educator for two Dartmouth College programs that bring high school juniors from around the world to the Earth's polar regions.

"Working closely with these scientists in the polar regions, you gain familiarity and confidence," she says. "I trust these people. I see what they're doing. The evidence of climate change that they shared is just overwhelming." So when she's back in her Vermont science classroom and a student asks her a question, she has not only the answer, but also personal experience in the polar regions that brings that information to life.

Familiarity with the facts about climate change is vital to dealing confidently with its deniers, experts agree. Although traveling to the polar regions is out of reach for most teachers, Wallstrom's access to scientists isn't. NCSE offers "Scientist in the Classroom," a program that pairs teachers with local scientists—usually graduate students—studying climate change. Dartmouth College expects to have free K–12 teaching modules on climate and polar science from the scientists in their polar programs available this summer.

The NCSE/Penn State survey revealed that nearly 97 percent of students get at least one climate change lesson by the time they graduate from high school. However, the average science teacher devotes only one or two hours to the topic each year. And according to Elizabeth Lewis, an associate professor of science education at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, only 11 percent of high school students take an earth systems science (ESS) course, in which teachers typically have the expertise to teach climate change accurately.

"In general, non-ESS certified teachers should seek professional development before teaching climate change," Lewis says, "either by taking coursework in earth systems science or participating in a teacher professional development program focused on learning about climate change dynamics."

The National Science Teachers Association has many low-cost online resources for professional development focused on climate change. Nature, science, and natural history museums sometimes offer summer climate change classes for teachers. And the American Museum of Natural History in New York City offers an online class for educators that provides graduate credit. Of course, local colleges or universities may offer classes through their science or education departments, as well.

A lack of ESS certification doesn't mean that climate change shouldn't be taught in other science classrooms, or even in classrooms outside of the science department; just that teachers should make sure they acquire a solid grasp of the material.

When the Textbook Doesn't Tell the Story

But what happens when the textbook itself is incorrect or incomplete? Bill Bigelow, who coauthored A People's Curriculum for the Earth with Tim Swinehart, points to a textbook adopted in Portland Public Schools as an example. The textbook devotes only one page to climate change—and even that one page inaccurately states that greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles, power plants, and other sources "may" contribute to climate change.

However, there are good materials for teachers available, Schoerning says. Two federal agencies lead the way: NASA (the space agency) and NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) have detailed resources for teaching climate change on their websites, in some cases aligning with the Next Generation Science Standards.

Schoerning, who does community outreach for the National Center for Science Education, has found that addressing some of the less politicized aspects of climate change can introduce the idea without triggering defensiveness in skeptics. For example, many people she has encountered have never heard of ocean acidification. An experiment with a soda bottle filled with water, a pH strip, and someone willing to blow into the bottle offers a quick demonstration of how carbon dioxide can make water acidic. Or, she adds, lessons on the carbon cycle involve no controversy, but introduce fundamental concepts required for understanding climate change.

Swinehart begins every climate change unit with an activity called the climate mixer, outlined in his book on teaching climate change, A People's Curriculum for the Earth. Bigelow explains that this role-playing activity has each student taking the part of someone affected by the climate crisis. "Some are beneficiaries," he says, "like a Russian oilman, who stands to gain access to new oil fields from the melting Arctic. Others are not beneficiaries, like someone in sub-Saharan Africa who is losing farmland to desertification."

This activity brings the idea that there can be different perspectives—even contradictory ones—of the same reality, without denying or watering down that reality.

A Natural Pairing

"If there's one message I'd like to send to administrators," says Bigelow, "it's that science and social studies are a natural pairing." Climate change lends itself particularly well to cross-discipline teaching because it has a complex social dimension, he explains.

A cross-discipline class, or even just cooperation among teachers, gives social studies students access to the scientific underpinnings of the social problem and gives science students an appropriate forum for discussing different perspectives on scientific facts.

Bigelow points to Sunnyside Environmental School, a K–8 school in Portland that successfully embeds climate science across subjects. Most years, its 6th–8th grade teachers plan a week-long "teach-in" as a capstone to a unit on climate change, energy, or another topic, says Karen Shay, who teaches 6th grade science at Sunnyside.

During each teach-in, a diverse group of community members—from coal miners to political activists—teach students about the topic from their point of view. Classes and subjects take on new forms for the week.

Teachers see the influence of the climate change unit in students' service projects and actions for years afterward. Recently, a group of Sunnyside 8th graders testified at a city council meeting about the city's fossil fuel infrastructure. And a high school senior returned to the school to interview a visiting fracking expert for her senior thesis. Even outcomes, such as a student turning out the lights when leaving a room, make the teach-ins worth the time and energy, says Sunnyside math teacher Tara Branham.

Room for Despair and Hope

Swinehart says his meeting with the parents who wanted their denial of climate change to have equal time in the classroom was memorable for two reasons. The first was because the father was so angry. The second reason was because it marked the last time Swinehart has had a parent complain about the way he's teaching climate change—and that was five years ago.

Comparing the results of the NCSE/Penn State survey to previous surveys suggests that the controversy on teaching the topic has declined over the last several years. Wallstrom and Swinehart's personal experiences back this up. But another, equally troubling challenge has emerged.

"Teaching this honestly, there is a certain amount of despair" over the state of the climate, Swinehart says of his students. "But there is room in our hearts for both that despair and the hope for something better."

Swinehart has found that teaching climate change through the stories of people throughout the world who experience it—and take steps to solve the problem—helps protect his students from despair. The students' reflections on the class show that those stories make them feel that they can act on solutions themselves.

"Ownership of the issue is oddly empowering," he says. At the end of Swinehart's climate change unit, students write a poem about their feelings on climate change, inspired by the work of Marshall Islands poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner.

"Tell them about the water," Jetnil-Kijiner wrote in one of her best-known poems, "how we have seen it rising/flooding across our cemeteries/gushing over our sea walls/and crashing against our homes."

"The most important line I read in one of the student's poems was that it's never going to be up to the leaders and the politicians to show us the way forward. It's going to be up to us, showing them what to do," says Swinehart. "As a social studies teacher, that's mission accomplished."

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