How I teach about climate change in a state that relies on fossil fuels

Editor’s Note: A large majority of the scientific community believes that climate change is occurring due to human activities such as burning fossil fuels. But in states like Wyoming, which produces nearly 40 percent of U.S. coal, those same fossil fuels are the backbone of the economy and teaching climate change remains controversial. Below, Wyoming teacher Roger Spears discusses how evidence-based science teaching helps students draw the most accurate conclusions on the topic.

Climate change: you hear about it. You wonder about it. You believe it. You ignore it. It’s a controversial subject, especially when you are from a state where you are partially (although indirectly) to blame for it. The state in question? Wyoming, where I teach.


Wyoming holds vast amounts of low-sulfur coal, natural gas, crude oil and oil shale, all fossil fuels. When burned, they release carbon dioxide, the main culprit to greenhouse gases, into the air. Most of Wyoming’s resources travel via pipeline or railroad to major population centers throughout the country.

Many of Wyoming’s 584,000 residents are tied to the energy industry workforce, so it comes as no surprise that many of these people are weary or threatened by the topic of climate change or global warming. Student ideologies greatly reflect those of their parents; Wyoming is very proud of its traditions, livelihood and conservative nature.

At times, this has caused some contentious moments in the classroom. To introduce the topic, I ask students to collect weather data for two or three cities in different climatic zones and to compare and contrast the different sets of data, as well as historical data from those cities, and to notice any differences. Then, we analyze data on sea ice, sea levels, carbon emissions and global temperature during the past 35 years.

This always raises some eyebrows with my students. I have heard many times from a student: “My parents don’t believe in climate change or global warming.” I want to tread lightly on their beliefs because that is what they believe, regardless of my own belief about the topic. When I show the evidence, students can draw their own conclusions that there are indeed changes to the climate.

As a science teacher, it is not my duty to force a belief in climate change or global warming on someone else, but rather to allow the scientific method and inquiry process to take hold and provide evidence from multiple sources so that the students can draw their own conclusions. I want to develop my students into independent thinkers so that they can make well-informed decisions by looking at many sources of information. Science has made major contributions to social advancement, and students need to learn how to evaluate the potential effects of new scientific advancements on both human society as well as the natural world.

A footnote on the 2014-2016 budgetary bill disallowed the use of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which would develop a curriculum that taught climate change as fact. These standards were never meant to be an overall curriculum, but rather to be used as a framework for schools, districts and even states to use as a guide when developing their new set of standards. Our school district has been using this framework for the past four years, even when the NGSS was in its draft phase. The footnote has recently been overturned by the governor during the last legislative session, so we hope to now develop a set of state science standards that has not been revised since 2001.

Fossil fuels are a very important part of our country’s economy, and it seems that few people believe we can completely be weaned from using them. But we can use our technological ingenuity to limit the impact our practices have on the environment. With some encouragement, perhaps this ingenuity is sitting in my classroom.

Roger J. Spears is a physics and chemistry teacher at Torrington and Southeast High Schools in Torrington and Yoder, Wyoming. He belongs to the Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers (NEAT): NASA Educator Astronaut Program.

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