Climate Science Belongs In The Classroom

BY ON March 13, 2012

Stop climate change polar bear iceberg graphic

According to certain special interest groups, climate change seems to be a hot topic when it comes to what should be taught in public schools. The arguments are that teachers tend to be alarmist or too liberal. I would like to share my own philosophy on climate change education based on experience as an environmental educator.

Climate Change: What To Teach:

First, let’s take a look at what the real experts on science education have to say. Climate change is included in standards for science education across the country. The recently released National Academy of Sciences’ “Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts and Core Ideas states that:

“Global climate change, shown to be driven by both natural phenomena and by human activities, could have large consequences for all of Earth’s surface systems, including the biosphere.” 

It also goes on to outline what students should understand about climate change by the end of grades 5, 8 and 12. Global climate change is included in my state’s Core Science Curriculum Frameworks, and students’ understanding is assessed on state standardized tests. The College Board’s course outline for AP Environmental Science also includes global warming as a topic, with the expectation that units will include discussions of “greenhouse gases and the greenhouse effect; impacts and consequences of global warming; impacts and consequences of global warming; reducing climate change; relevant laws and treaties,” and these concepts are included on the AP Exam at the end of the course.

If I want to follow the guidelines of the most respected national and local scientists and educators, then I must teach about climate change. If I want to prepare my students for standardized tests, I also must teach about climate change. I believe that it is important for my students to leave my classroom as scientifically literate, informed citizens who are able to make decisions relevant to their impact on climate change…whether that be how they choose to cast a vote or buy a new car.

The experts agree, but I’m also passionate about climate change education because I see it occurring on a local level and impacting my loved ones. As a member of a farming family that goes back generations, my life is intertwined with the seasons and the climate. For example, in my 30-year lifetime I have witnessed a change in the maple sugaring season, a tradition that I hope to be able to pass on to my child. We used to tap trees in March, and now we tap them in February. If you pay attention, you can recognize the changes occurring right before your eyes, just as my conservative Yankee family has. This kind of connection between my life and science is what makes for a dynamic, exciting science lesson. I truly care about this topic, and my students can recognize that.

Climate Change: How To Teach

But it’s not just about what to teach, I believe that how I teach about climate change is incredibly important. My own philosophy of education is one of experiential, place-based learning, stressing the skills of problem-solving and critical thinking. I don’t expect my students to listen blindly to lectures and accept what I say as the ultimate truth. Instead, I prefer to allow students to draw their own conclusions. I choose to introduce the unit with data analysis, including atmospheric temperature anomalies, carbon dioxide concentrations and changes in sea level. Students construct graphs and look for correlations, discuss the validity and reliability of the data, who funds this research, and the possibility of hidden variables. I don’t stand at a podium and tell kids that the Earth is warming – they figure it out on their own.

There have been questions of whether there is room for differences of opinion in the curriculum. Perhaps we could read articles from climate change skeptics or have a debate? My simple answer is this: I would not hold a debate on climate change any more than I would hold one on the Theory of Natural Selection or the Law of Gravity.

I don’t want to create the illusion of a debate, when in fact the data shows that the climate is changing and that anthropogenic carbon emissions are accelerating the rise in temperature. There is consensus among climate scientists and I don’t give any credence to climate change skeptics in my science classroom. However, I do think the story of Richard Muller, a climate change skeptic who decided to do his own research and subsequently changed his mind, is valuable for us to read and discuss. It’s an example of a scientifically literate person changing his conclusion when presented with data. We discuss Milankovitch cycles and periods of natural cooling and warming, and we also talk about the importance of understanding the complexity of models that predict the impact of climate change. We discuss why the record snow falls last winter were actually an indicator of the kind of extreme changes in weather patterns that result from climate change, not evidence that the temperature isn’t rising. We also pay attention to the credibility of sources, look at who is funding research and think about what their motivations could be. While there is debate about exactly how our future will change because of climate change, there’s not scientific debate about the fact that the temperature is rising.

So what if students still choose not to believe that climate change is real? My goal is to make my students think critically and draw their own conclusions. I feel I have accomplished my goal as a teacher if my students are aware that there is consensus among climate scientists, they are able to express their arguments using scientific data and can discredit pseudoscience…even if they don’t agree with me.


Main image: Posters For Good

TOPICS: Activism, Pollution, Schools, Science