Earth Day All Year Long: Climate Change Awareness Begins in the Classroom

Beach reclamation project in the Maldives.

Beach reclamation project in the Maldives.

Scientists overwhelmingly agree that future generations will face serious challenges from climate change, and that human energy consumption plays a significant role in rising temperatures and sea levels globally. Yet despite the media attention this gets (especially around Earth Day), climate literacy rates are startlingly low in the United States. According to a recent NPR piece, two thirds of American students say they know little or nothing about the impacts of fossil fuel consumption on climate change. A recent report from the National Center for Science Education sounds the alarm, and makes clear that our schools desperately need new strategies and resources to address young people’s lack of knowledge about our world.

Climate education is largely ignored in science curricula, and mired in political debate. Professional development for teachers around these topics is almost non-existent, and quality educational resources are very hard to find. Teachers say they are often intimidated to teach about climate change due to the polarized political climate. The knowledge gap is unequal – private schools and wealthy school districts generally have more resources to teach science, while kids in the inner cities and rural areas fall far behind.

Good News

There is room for optimism in this dire scenario:  the newly released Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) national science education standards aim to prepare young people to understand and respond to the climate and energy challenges of the 21st century. There are also innovative organizations mobilizing young people to take action – such as Alliance for Climate Education (ACE), which reaches nearly 2 million youth around the country through dynamic assemblies and student action teams.  Another great resource is the Climate Literacy and Awareness Network (CLEAN), which provides a clearinghouse of information, lesson plans, webinars and other tools to empower young people to make a difference. Data visualization has emerged as an effective way to drive home what’s happening with rising temperatures and ocean waters (See this New York Times feature). But there is still a need for greater collaboration and public awareness.

The Power of Storytelling

Former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed

Former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed

Film can be a powerful medium to connect audiences to the severity of the problem, while also inspiring hope that there are solutions. The Independent Lens film The Island President, which broadcasts on Earth Day Monday, April 22nd, tells the story of Mohamed Nasheed – a young, charismatic leader from the Maldives: a small archipelago nation that faces extinction in the near future from the rising sea. The film chronicles Nasheed’s political struggles against a repressive dictatorship, his rise to power as President, and his journey to the 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen where he makes a passionate plea for the world’s most polluting nations to rescue the Maldives – and, ultimately all of us – from the effects of global warming. The film is being shown in more than 100 cities around the country through Community Cinema in April. Find a screening near you and join informative and proactive discussions about what we can all do.

ITVS’s Community Classroom also offers standards-aligned curriculum to bring the film into middle and high school classrooms and informal educational settings, free of charge. Two lesson plans and three short film modules explore the roots of the political debate around climate change, and ask students to connect the events in the Maldives to their own communities. They also examine the human rights situation in the Maldives, and how political repression is often connected to environmental devastation. The lessons ask critical questions about leadership and what are the small but crucial steps we can all take to slow the devastating impact of our energy use on the environment.

See one of the modules for The Island President, below.

Watch Mohamed Nasheed Confronts Climate Change Head-on in Maldives on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

The modules are also available to watch for free on PBS’s Video player and a full educational DVD package is available here.

Celebrate Earth Day and tune in to The Island President Monday, April 22 at 10pm (check local listings).

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