Climate in the Classroom: Teachers Share Their Stories

BY Saskia de Melker and Rebecca Jacobson  May 1, 2012 at 5:01 PM EDT

This week, the PBS NewsHour will report on one teacher’s struggles to teach climate change in her Colorado classroom. This comes as the National Academies Press is preparing to roll out new national science standards for kindergarten through 12th grade. For the first time this year, new standards will include guidelines on teaching climate change.

With the help of American Public Media’s Public Insight Network, we asked teachers and educators around the country to tell us how they teach climate change and climate science in their classrooms. It’s not always easy. Some have been met with challenges from parents, students and fellow colleagues.

Others have found interactive techniques to engage students on the subject. For example, Lanny Smith, founder of The Earthman Project, dresses up as this goofy guy, Earthman.

Here are a few responses, edited for length and clarity, we received:

Cooltheearth.org
Mr. Methane, Mr. Carbon’s evil twin. Courtesy: Geoff Chin
Geoff Chin, fourth-grade teacher in Kentfield, Calif.:

Young kids have trouble relating directly to something that is largely abstract. I try to teach them concrete effects and concrete interventions in class. This is also something that we do in conjunction with the Cool the Earth program.

The chief organizer of the group Cool the Earth is a parent at my school and a personal friend. She has been working with teachers and volunteers to take a school-based carbon reduction program nationwide. We work with her to organize incentive programs, which are kicked off each year with a school assembly. A play is presented that introduces children to the potential effects of global warming and encourages them to intervene. We produce the play annually, and pilot its use for nationwide use.

The photo is me in costume as the evil Mr. Methane, a part I play each year as Mr. Carbon’s twisted twin who is 20 times worse than he is. It also relates directly back to the science unit I teach in my classroom to all 120 of our fourth graders on reducing solid waste and recycling.

Donna Antonucci, high school teacher in Savannah, Ga.:

The biggest challenge is to get the students to look at the data without injecting political bias.

I found the greatest success by introducing the resources on the Office of Naval Research’s website. It seems the Department of Defense is the most credible source for these students and their families.

Once the data is viewed, a discussion of the ice-sediment core sampling, computer modeling techniques and potential paths forward can ensue. I find ways to sidestep the blame game in order to present the evidence and introduce the students to the science behind the data and the scientists gathering data.

Hanna Eklund, researcher in Anchorage, Alaska:

Especially here in Alaska, it is difficult to get the students to think outside of the oil-based society. They want to work up in the North Slope and make big bucks on oil rigs, but at the same time, they want to stop climate change and live in their native, traditional subsistence lifestyle.

We have a K-12 science curriculum under development where we integrate traditional native knowledge with Western science. The purpose of the curriculum is to get the students to link Western science to their own traditional knowledge and culture and to become more interested in what’s happening in the environment nowadays.

One of the lesson plans focuses on climate change in our region: what changes have there already been (e.g. our region’s glacial changes) and what their elders have seen change. Another lesson plan focuses on weather and climate and how important traditional weather predicting has been to the native culture when hunting and fishing on the ocean and how it has become more difficult with the changes in the weather.

Caitlin Fine, elementary school teacher in Arlington, Va.:

I have actually had more concerns and challenges from colleagues than from students.

Caitlin Fine sampling dissolved inorganic carbon as a NOAA Teacher at Sea in August.

I have had colleagues laugh at me and say, ‘Well, you don’t really believe that climate change exists, right?!’ or ‘Why are you wasting time teaching students about climate change when everybody knows that it doesn’t really exist?’

There is nothing in the Virginia Elementary Science Standards of Learning that relates directly to climate change. The closest that we have is in the kindergarten standards, (reusing, recycling and conserving), the first grade standards (resources are limited, air and water quality) and the third grade standards (human impact, conservation of natural resources).

Terry Atkinson, K-12 substitute teacher in Greenfield, Mass.:

In the western part of the state where I teach, we have the perfect outdoor learning lab in the Connecticut River watershed. Studies show that children learn best from project-based learning that begins with what they know and builds on that knowledge.

Teaching children to take care of the planet — environmental stewardship — is one of the most important things we have to incorporate into our curriculum. Similar studies show that children who grow up with an appreciation of nature — whether from camping with their families, outdoor play, picnicking, gardening, etc. — develop stewardship behavior.

This desire to protect our environment engenders concerns about climate change and a recognition about things we are doing that contribute to it. There is a great deal of exposure to media due to our age of electronics, so kids are often quite aware of the environmental issues around them. The challenge is to translate that caring into doing, presenting developmentally appropriate learning that encourages that doing instead of a feeling of fear or paralysis that nothing can be done.

Jillian Worssam, eighth grade science teacher in Flagstaff, Ariz.:

At this time the state of Arizona has a few educational concepts randomly placed at different grade levels on state-mandated topic guidelines. There is no specific, complete topic on climate change addressed at any grade level.

As the district and state move to address common core standards, we anticipate the inclusion of climate change topics but have not been provided guidelines nor focus on what these changes might look like.

Jennifer Muir, eighth and ninth grade science teacher in South Salt Lake, Utah:

In the conservative society that I live in, (climate change) is much more likely to be thought of as a myth than scientific knowledge.

Politics make it extremely hard to teach it here. I get a fight from many parents and students each year that I teach it in Earth science. It is part of the core curriculum, so I have to teach it.

I also like to teach it. I think it is very important that students understand what is happening to their planet and that we are the cause of it.

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