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The Value of Teaching Climate Change in Today's Classroom

 Editor's Note: Never has it been more critical to study the earth's environment and have conversations—often difficult ones—about climate change in the classroom. Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Education Director at the Global Oneness Project explains why and shares some resources.

By guest blogger Cleary Vaughan-Lee

"Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice then we do," wrote farmer and environmental activist Wendell Berry.

I love Berry's statement that nature has "a longer memory." It implies that the environment was here long before us, that our actions have real consequences within a living, breathing, system, and that its existence will (hopefully) endure.

Approaching Climate Discussions

What responsibilities do we have to protect and preserve our planet? And how do we engage students with these topics? These questions are more important now than ever as we witness the global impacts of climate change due to human-related activities, particularly the use of fossil fuel. Unfortunately, as we've seen with President Trump's recent withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, political agendas can collide with serious scientific inquiry into climate change and how humanity could and should relate to the Earth.

As a parent myself, I know that students are aware of climate change and its impacts; they are deeply affected by what they are witnessing first hand, as well as by what they are seeing and hearing on the news. And they have a lot of questions and concerns.

Isle-de-jean-charles-hero.jpgBut the climate change debate can be very confusing to students, especially in families and communities where the impacts and realities of climate change are doubted. As these topics are integrated into more classrooms, according to an article in The New York Times, teachers "are reckoning with students for whom suspicion of the subject is deeply rooted." It's critical that parents and teachers use engaging, effective, science-based tools for climate education. 

Integrating in-depth knowledge about climate change into classrooms today is crucial for the future of our planet and science teachers are providing a critical role. As the end of this school year came to a close, I talked to two science teachers who shared their unique perspectives, climate change resources, and classroom projects, all of which empower students to think critically about scientific discovery and engage in real-world problem solving.

Conversations with Parents

Dave Whaley, a 6th grade science teacher at San Domenico School, described one of his overarching goals as a science teacher given our current political and environmental landscape. He said that he aims "to help students become responsible citizens, with the skills to use what they know about science to make informed decisions." These decisions, he said, will carry over and inform students' voting choices, how they live their daily lives, both today and in the long term.

My son was in Whaley's class this past school year. I found his approach to climate change innovative; students presented their projects to a new audience—parents. After all, our carbon footprint can be measured by the choices we make at home. For students' climate change projects, Whaley asked parents to assist students in completing a Carbon Footprint Activity, which includes a survey to gauge and monitor each family's carbon footprint. Questions in the survey address personal habits, home energy, transportation, and recycling and waste. Ways to reduce the size of the students' family carbon footprint are also included.

For their final projects this year, students created an audio file, in podcast format, which they presented to parents at home. The goals: to stimulate science conversation at home and to give the opportunity for students to present their work to a new audience. As a parent, I loved hearing the facts and statistics my son learned about climate change from his own research and engaging in a discussion about how to keep our home carbon footprint low. Integrating climate change education and knowledge into the home is one step to build students' awareness—how their daily tasks and choices connect to the big picture.

Whaley explains, "I want my students to not only understand, but be able to think critically about what they read, regardless of their political beliefs. Understanding the science behind climate change is important as we seek to create truly global citizens who are doing more than just looking out for themselves." I couldn't agree more.

Evidence-Based Discussions

Science teacher Jeremey Wilder takes a similar approach at the high school level. Wilder teaches AP Environmental Science at Grand Haven High School in Michigan. His place-based curriculum introduces students to local geography and the qualities and values of environmental citizenship.

For the past few years, Wilder starts his course with a frank survey of the state of our scientific understanding of climate change issues. He uses the resource Skeptical Science, a nonprofit science education organization. The platform was created by John Cook, a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, my alma mater. The goal: "to explain what peer reviewed science has to say about global warming." The site contains a database of over 200 climate myths with supported research and basic, intermediate, and advanced levels of understanding. 

According to Skeptical Science, their resources help students "discover the underlying data and scientific principles that lead scientists and policy makers worldwide to the conclusion that climate change must be an issue that garners everyone's attention." The resource also contains a curated comments section with thoughts from scientists and climate change skeptics. "By the end of the first week of the course," said Wilder, "most students engage in evidence-based discussions about climate issues."

Links to Literature

Wilder then brings the data closer to the heart in ways that move and inspire students. He embeds environmental thought leaders and writers into the course, including Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons" and selections from Aldo Leopold's "Sand County Almanac." Leopold's writings from the 1930s-1950s are uncannily relevant today, said Wilder. "They are timeless in the sense that students recognize the struggle to live within their local environment, and to maintain a balance that allows future generations to enjoy its benefits." Climate change touches many other areas of Wilder's course, including discussions on energy policy, habitat, and biodiversity, along with land use and planning.  

Like Hardin and Leopold, educators, naturalists, environmentalists, poets, and scientists have been writing about how human beings can relate to our planet for decades, including Rachel Carson, Bill McKibben, E.O. Wilson, Wallace Stegner, and Edward Abbey, to name a few. These voices challenge students to make their own connections to the natural world by reflecting on its beauty and wonder, as well as the work that is needed for preservation and conservation. I love this quote by Leopold: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." "Biotic" simply means relating to living things.

climate change.pngScience teachers today are pivotal as students begin to make their own observations and reflections about, and inquiries into, our living planet. A good science teacher, says Ann Reid of the National Center for Science Education, for NPR, "can give students the tools they need to be curious, critical and confident evaluators of evidence about all sorts of topics throughout their lives. This ability—to be curious, but also discerning—has never been more important now that we essentially have a universe of information at our fingertips, with the valid and the spurious often difficult to distinguish."

This thinking is foundational to the future of environmental citizenship. When we still attain wonder in relation to our natural world, we innately care. It is a small act, but an honest one. This is when compassion settles in, when students take action and are driven from their own motivation and humanistic and scientific observations. As we move into unchartered political territory, today's environmental decisions will, in turn, impact generations. 

Climate Change Lesson Plans and Resources 

  • The Climate Change Education Project at Stanford University aims to educate future generations about causes and effects of climate change as part of their mission.
  • Their curriculum, for middle school and high school classrooms, provides an in-depth analysis of climate change, including, but not limited to, teacher presentations and classroom discussions on the process of science, scientific consensus, science in policy, and political interference in science.
  • The NYTimes Learning Network published a collection of all of their lesson plans related to climate change on one page, from global warming evidence and research, reducing carbon emissions, to environmental politics and policy.
  • Are you a parent looking to support science education at your child's school? The National Center for Science Education has some ideas to get you started.
  • The Global Oneness Project provides a climate change collection, containing real-world stories, with companion lesson plans, impacting individuals and communities around the globe.
  • Explore climate change teacher resources from NASA.

Connect with Cleary, Global Oneness Project, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Photo credit: From the short film Isle de Jean Charles by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee

Quote image created on Pablo

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