How to create local climate change projects with your students
Three STEM educators share best practices for tackling climate change in the classroom through project-based learning.
The mounting impacts of climate change are perhaps the greatest challenge facing our society in the next century. From heat waves and megafires to droughts and more intense storms, the United States is already experiencing a range of effects. At the same time, innovative solutions have emerged which draw on new and ancient wisdom as communities across the country are learning how to adapt. In U.S. schools, many teachers are increasingly being confronted with conversations about climate change by their students.
According to a nationwide survey of teenagers by EdWeek Research Center, 79% of high school students believe that climate change is real, and that it is mainly caused by human activity. However, the survey also found that just because students believe that human activity is driving climate change doesn’t mean they fully grasp the science behind it. Furthermore, 76% of teachers have not received any professional training or education on how to teach climate change — which affects their ability to accurately convey the scope of the problem and solutions.
The United States has not mandated or developed nationwide teaching standards for climate change science in secondary schools. But for teachers who are invested in teaching it, designing inquiry-based projects about local impacts and solutions can provide an entry point for students to conceptualize climate change concepts.
NOVA interviewed three secondary school science teachers who have done this. Here’s how they are creating meaningful learning experiences, and how to apply their best practices to your own classrooms.
Provide opportunities for students to observe local impacts
For Nancy Gifford, a 7th grade science educator in Chatham, Massachusetts, having students observe local climate change impacts helped bridge the gap between the disciplinary content and the real-world implications. One of Gifford’s favorite projects is a field trip to Cape Cod National Seashore that involves local park rangers and experts from the Center for Coastal Studies. Gifford has been leading this field trip for the past eight years and over the course of the day students break into groups to do hands-on projects. They assess sea-level rise on Eastham Beach by measuring how the shoreline has evolved over time and where it is expected to be in 10-20 years; they collect core samples of marsh sediment to examine carbon sequestration in the marshes; and participate in a fishing activity to explore the changing diversity of species found in New England.
“They're finding a lot of southern species moving up into the Cape Cod National Seashore area, and they're also noticing that the lobsters are moving further north,” Gifford says. “So now you don't really find lobsters south of Cape Cod anymore because of where the water is warming due to climate change.”
When it comes to understanding how climate change is affecting the fisheries, every student knows someone who might be impacted directly or indirectly, Gifford explains.
“They're either serving it on a plate or they're cooking it, or they're actually catching it and processing it,” she says. “That knowledge catches some of the kids that may not have been as interested at first about why this matters, but when you can show them climate change in their backyard, it makes it more real.”
While a field trip to Cape Cod National Seashore is not accessible for every class, Gifford encourages educators to reach out to local naturalists and research centers to plan experiences. She also recommends using climate data from national research organizations or science outlets like NASA, NOAA, The NEED Project, The Climate Initiative, and NOVA to help complement lessons.
Transition from personal accountability to collective commitment
In Tucson, Arizona, earth science and chemistry teacher Erik Fleming has found that one of the easiest climate resilience concepts for students to connect with is water conservation and usage. Fleming has students start by analyzing their family water bill. On the bill students are able to see things like household water use and how it compares with local water use averages on a graph. Within their household they calculate each individual’s usage and then create a personal plan to save more water.
“This is the third time I've run this project with students and they've dialed it in really well,” Fleming says. “They have a good understanding of their own uses and personal contributions, and I try not to deflate them at the end, but they do figure out that they're probably much better at this than they think they are just by virtue of growing up in a desert.”
In the 1970s, the city of Tucson was largely dependent on groundwater, but was struggling to keep up with the demand of a growing population. One of the water security tactics the city employed was transitioning to a tiered water system, in which customers could consume the amount of water necessary for needs such as for drinking and bathing at a lower price, but paid more as water usage exceeded essential needs, making things like maintaining lawns and swimming pools more expensive.
“The city water department has been very proactive about education and outreach and also getting people to do more natural landscaping and less swimming pools,” Fleming says. “Because of this kind of community emphasis, to get students to the next level we calculate the entire watershed's water budget, and it does turn out that the city of Tucson and the Tucson Basin use less water than falls from the sky.”
While Tucson is part of the Sonoran Desert ecosystem, the city can experience higher rainfall in the summer months, particularly August. During this time the city is inundated with several inches of rain.
“We can get a couple of inches of rain in a day, which is intense for Tucson, and there's nowhere for it to go,” Fleming says. “So the long-term plan, after students understand their personal water use, is actually figuring out how we can redesign built infrastructure to better manage the flow of water.”
Encourage collaboration across scientific disciplines and state lines
For the past 22 years, George Hademenos has been teaching high school physics in Richardson, Texas. “I don't like to just come in and address curricular objectives. What I want to do is make those objectives come to life for my students,” Hademenos says. “Climate change is a serious scientific issue and I want kids to be able to understand what it is, what it means, and how it impacts them.”
This dedication to student excellence is what earned Hademenos an engineering education award at the 2023 National Science Teaching Association’s national conference in Atlanta.
For Hademenos, climate change has always been an integral component of his physics curriculum to illustrate real-world extensions of concepts taught in class.
High school physics students primarily learn about core concepts such as waves and electromagnetic radiation, energy transfer, forces and interactions, and structure and properties of matter. Hademenos builds on these existing standards by challenging students to apply that knowledge to complex, interdisciplinary problems like climate change.
In one project several years ago, students designed, modeled, constructed, tested, and analyzed data from a 3D-printed rover vehicle referred to as ROAVEE (Remotely Operated Amphibious Vehicle for Environmental Exploration). The rover was equipped with sensors to collect data from air and water as the vehicle navigated on solid terrain as well as on water.
“Physics is hands-on science. It's not really something to be taught, it's something to be explored with your hands,” Hademenos says. “The overall objective of this project was to work in collaboration with another teacher so that we could do the mechanics part and then we could give it to the AP environmental students who could then use it to get more detailed data.”
This year, Hademenos participated in “Float Your Boat,” a project coordinated by the University of Washington Polar Science Center. It allows students to participate in ongoing research and learn about the circulation of the Arctic Ocean and how its sea-ice cover is changing.
Hademenos’s students decorated 8-inch long wooden boats, each stamped with a number and a web address provided by the Polar Science Center. These boats are then transported to the Arctic Ocean and embedded on an ice floe with a buoy. The buoy will transmit location data and the students can log into a website and track their boats throughout the process.
The students will also be communicating with a high school in Utqiagvik—the northernmost town in Alaska—who are working on the same research project to foster collaboration.
For Gifford, Fleming, and Hademenos, it’s not enough to just address climate change in the classroom. They strive to help students connect with impacts and solutions in their communities in a variety of ways.
“I think when (students) go back to their own beaches, they're seeing that the tides are higher in their neighborhoods,” Gifford says of the students who have participated in the Cape Cod trip. “Areas that are flooding that would only flood during a hurricane or big storm are flooding pretty regularly now, and I think that that probably has the most impact on them because it's real, and they can see it, and we can measure it.”