TOPICS > Science

Teachers Endure Balancing Act Over Climate Change Curriculum

May 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
For the first time, new national educational standards for grades K-12 will link global warming trends to manmade emissions. Part of our Coping With Climate Change series, Hari Sreenivasan looks at the challenges teachers face when covering the topic of climate science in their classrooms.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And now to our series called Coping With Climate Change that examines how communities around the country are dealing with unfolding changes.

Tonight, Hari Sreenivasan focuses on the challenges of teaching about climate science.

CHERYL MANNING, high school science teacher: Talk about what is — what have you heard?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Cheryl Manning, a high school science teacher in Evergreen, Colo., starts her lessons about climate change by asking questions, not giving answers.

CHERYL MANNING: I ask them to think about what they already know. And then from that list of what they know, what they think they know, I want them to form some questions.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s because so many students today enter the classroom with preconceived notions about climate change.

My biggest concern is that my kids are going to come home from high school and say, 'the world is warming up . . . human nature is polluting the world.'Renee Domico, Colorado

CHERYL MANNING: They hear it on the news. They see it in the newspaper. They hear their parents talking about it. There are people who say that climate — the climate may be changing, but it’s not our fault, or the climate isn’t changing at all; this is a natural cycle. There are all sorts of things that the kids hear. They want clarification.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In fact, in a recent survey by the National Science Teachers Association, teachers say they’re facing skepticism about climate science; 82 percent of science teachers say they faced it from students, and 54 percent say they faced it from parents.

RENEE DOMICO, mother: You can put the spoons on there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Parents like Renee Domico of Colorado, a mother of five.

RENEE DOMICO: My biggest concern is that my kids are going to come home from high school and say: The world is warming up. We’re too industrialized. We drive too many cars. We have too many people. And human nature is polluting the world.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Cheryl Manning knows that skepticism firsthand.

CHERYL MANNING: I had students looking at data sets that were published online by NOAA and NASA and other international science organizations. And I had them comparing and looking at those and looking at projections and models, what were the models indicating.

And I had some parents come to me during parent-teacher conference, and they were very upset that I was teaching about this. And they referred to peer-reviewed sciences, the Kool-Aid of the left-wing liberal conspiracy. And it was at that point where I realized what I was up against with this group of parents, and I knew that I needed to get some help.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Manning sought help from Susan Buhr. Buhr directs education outreach for CIRES, a cooperative environmental science research institute between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado, Boulder.

SUSAN BUHR, outreach director, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences: Teachers in science classes are always going to want to talk about the science. And, increasingly, it’s difficult for them to do so because of resistance from parents or from students to hearing about the evidence of climate science and climate change.

I want to talk a little bit about the threats that come at a higher level than your classrooms.

HARI SREENIVASAN: To help teachers respond to concerns from students and parents, Buhr and colleagues have developed climate change workshops, even curriculum and lesson plans on how to keep the science in the classroom and the political controversy out.

SUSAN BUHR: It is significant enough to some teachers that they don’t want to get into this topic. So it can shut down instruction.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Parents and students are also influenced by what’s in the air or, during a political season, what’s on the airwaves from politicians.

Mitt Romney echoed views held by many in the Republican Party.

MITT ROMNEY (R): My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet, and the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try and reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.

HARI SREENIVASAN: President Obama said the climate change issue will be part of his 2012 campaign in this month’s “Rolling Stone” magazine — quote — “I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we’re going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way.”

Cheryl Manning’s challenge with parents in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains ended with her superintendent supporting her, but she says the experience was exhausting.

Climate science education faces challenges at the state levels. This spring, Tennessee enacted a law requiring teachers to present scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses on topics that arouse debate. In Louisiana, the Science Education Act passed in 2008 requires schools to promote open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied, including evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning.

CHERYL MANNING: In the popular culture, the word theory is a weak concept. It’s an idea. In scientific culture, the word theory is equivalent to the word survivor.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Science teacher Cheryl Manning says the distinction is important.

CHERYL MANNING: It is the idea that best explains a phenomenon and has had lines and lines of evidence supporting it, and it has been tested and tested and tested, and it survived all those tests, whereas a theory in popular culture could just fall under the bus and disappear.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The National Earth Science Teachers Association encourages teachers not to be influenced by social commentary. In fact, 36 percent of science teachers around the country say they have been influenced enough to teach both sides of climate change.

Roberta Johnson is the association’s executive director.

ROBERTA JOHNSON, National Earth Science Teachers Association: The science classroom is about using science — fundamental principals, fundamental principals of science and our ability to look at evidence and analyze it and draw evidence-based conclusions. It’s not about talking about policy debates. It’s not about whether something is socially acceptable. It’s evidence.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Some questions may be sorted out when new science standards for grades K-12 are introduced this year. For the first time, the national standards will link global warming trends to manmade emissions.

The standards are based on a framework by the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy says 97 percent to 98 percent of the most published climate researchers say humans are causing global warming.

Still, persistent skeptics remain unconvinced.

NARRATOR: They like to scare you, tell you the Earth is on fire.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A well-known conservative think tank, the Heartland Institute, doesn’t trust the science behind the upcoming standards. Instead, they will try to influence teachers directly. The institute has announced they will create their own K-12 climate science curriculum. Heartland sees global warming has been a net positive.

James Taylor is a senior fellow at heartland.

JAMES TAYLOR, Heartland Institute: We have seen that soil moisture globally has improved. We have seen that droughts have become less frequent and less severe. We have seen expansion of forests. We’ve seen crop production reach record levels.

We’ve seen tornadoes and hurricanes — to the extent that we can ascribe trends, we’ve seen that they have become less frequent and less severe. Across the board, we’ve seen that warmer climate, warmer temperatures have always benefited humans, and continue to do so.

HARI SREENIVASAN: These are views challenged by scientific evidence.

In Cheryl Manning’s classroom, she is trying to get her students to tackle both the validity of the science behind climate change and what society can do about it.

CHERYL MANNING: I want you to look for a couple of things. I want you to look for, number one, when did the conversation change from being just among scientists to being amongst more than that, amongst policy-makers, amongst industry people, and amongst the general public?

HARI SREENIVASAN: She now asks her advanced placement environmental class to create a timeline. Students chronicle both significant scientific advances and political events.

CHERYL MANNING: My hope is that they walk away with a clear understanding of, there’s a difference between the scientific understanding of the processes and the political conversation that’s going on. I don’t want them to confuse the politics and the economics and all of that with the actual — actual data that exists. So, I want them to be able to identify it and separate it from each other.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Manning is now sharing the lessons she has learned with other teachers through online and in-person workshops throughout the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: And other teachers explain the creative ways they’ve engaged students on our Coping With Climate Change page on our website. Plus, join us tomorrow for a live online chat at 5:00 p.m. Eastern time with some of people featured in tonight’s story.