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How Are We Preparing Students for Earth's Climate Future?

Using video excerpts from NOVA Decoding the Weather Machine and climate change data from organizations like NASA, NOAA, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Choosing Earth's Climate Future helps students understand how choices made today will affect the extent of global climate change.

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Glacial Meltwater is visible atop the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland.

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing young people today. Our younger generations are on track to inherit a planet that will look much different than it does today. As students prepare to face this rapidly changing world, it’s our responsibility to provide them with the information they need to flourish in life beyond school—especially regarding the actions they will take to confront the most important environmental crisis of our time. So, how are we preparing students to make informed decisions about climate related issues that will directly impact their future?

According to Mixed Messages: How Climate Change is Taught in America’s Public Schools, a nationwide study on climate change education in the U.S., about 75% of public school science teachers devoted at least one class period (about 40- 50 minutes) to teaching climate change. Earth science teachers spent the longest amount of time covering climate change, dedicating about 6 hours of class time to the topic. However, coverage in other science courses varied widely, utilizing only 1.5 - 4 hours of instruction time the entire year to discuss climate change.

Even though weather and human impacts on climate are featured in both middle school and high school Next Generation Science Standards, many teachers receive very little support and training to teach climate change. In addition, some teachers may be hesitant to teach it due to the fear of scaring students with the gravity of the problem and the sense of hopelessness in facing it.

To tackle some of these issues, NOVA has created a free interactive lesson on PBS LearningMedia, Choosing Earth’s Climate Future, that can be completed in approximately two 45-minute class periods. Using video excerpts from NOVA Decoding the Weather Machine and climate change data from organizations like NASA, NOAA, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, students will understand how choices made today will affect the extent of global climate change and the impacts felt throughout the world and develop a climate change action plan for their community.

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After analyzing changes in global temperature and carbon dioxide levels, students will predict how warming temperatures affect different parts of Earth’s systems.

The interactive lesson begins by addressing key disciplinary concepts about climate change: the difference between weather and climate, the key indicators that tell us our climate is warming, and the three interconnected choices we face as the climate changes—suffer, adapt, and mitigate. Throughout the lesson, students are pushed to think critically about changes they’ve seen or experienced in their community, making this learning experience personal and relatable. Teachers frequently hear students say, “So what? If this isn’t impacting me, why should I care?” By the end of this lesson, students will have a clear understanding of how climate change will impact their region if there are no attempts to curb our reliance on fossil fuels.

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In many lessons about climate change, it’s at this point where some students may start feeling hopeless–how can any action I take have an impact on an issue so large? This lesson transitions into exploring a few different adaptation and mitigation strategies and asks students to think critically about how each strategy could work in their community. In the final activity of the lesson, students are tasked with creating a community action plan that uses adaptation and mitigation strategies to alleviate suffering due to climate change and actively reverse its impact in their community. While there is no designated length required for the community action plan, this portion of the lesson can be modified to be a group project, an essay, or a presentation based on your curriculum objective and goals.

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Students will analyze real data from national sources to develop an evidence-based action plan for their community.

While this lesson is self-guided, facilitating activities like classroom discussions or additional readings can add more depth to this lesson. Below are a few discussion questions to extend the conversation beyond the interactive:

  1. What is our community currently doing to combat climate change? What role can businesses and governments play in mitigating the impact of climate change?

  2. What are the challenges and benefits of adding more renewable energy resources into the power grid?

  3. Is there any scientific research or new technology that we should prioritize in the next 5, 10, 15 years in order to mitigate the effects of climate change?

  4. There’s a lot of misinformation about climate change. What are some of the most common misconceptions about climate change that you have encountered?

All over the world, young people like 16-year-old Greta Thunberg are leading the climate change movement. It’s critical to make climate change a staple in the science classroom, and start having regular, evidence-based discussions about climate change with students to prepare them for the future.

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National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.