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Climate education confidence

How to navigate controversy when teaching the science behind climate change
  • NATURAL KNOWLEDGE—Ingrid Zabel, an author of Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change, speaks to children at the Cayuga Nature Center in Ithaca, New York, about how climate change is altering animal habits.
  • Four tips to teach climate science provided by the National Center for Science Education. (Gettyimages.com: ArtRoseStudio).

Environmental science teacher Jamie Esler takes his Idaho high school students outdoors for hands-on learning about climate science and climate change. They take core samples from trees, measure declining snowpack and calculate carbon dioxide levels. This hands-on field work is more impactful than a slideshow packed with data and graphs, Esler says.

Before students step into the woods or the class touches on the potentially contentious topic of climate change, Esler spends the first part of the semester teaching the basics of chemistry, physics, biology and the atmosphere.

“Just like physicians and auto mechanics can’t diagnose problems before they have a solid understanding of how a healthy body or car should work, we can’t understand the climate changes that are occurring until we know how the atmosphere operates,” says Esler, who teaches at Lake City High School in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Esler doesn’t ignore the political and social realities.

He guides his three Advanced Placement classes through the Yale Climate Change website, which features resources on climate science and how to teach it in the classroom.

For one of his first assignments, Esler clears the air by showing students an opinions map with various beliefs about climate change across the nation. The students take the survey and compare their results to the rest of the class, county, state and country.

“We get it out in the open that people feel differently about this topic, and we don’t stand a chance of learning the science if we don’t have a classroom culture of mutual respect,” he says.

Like thousands of other science teachers around the country, Esler is incorporating the new Next Generation Science Standards, which include the study of climate change. But Esler and other educators have found that one of the first questions to answer is exactly how to deliver the lessons.

Planning lessons

The science standards, which have been adopted by 19 states, include a section called “Global Climate Change” with guidelines for classrooms.

According to the standards, middle school students should study the causes of warmer global temperatures during the past century; high school students should analyze geoscience data such as core samples, fossils and climate models to make conclusions about the current rate of regional and global change.

“In reality, students need practical examples they can relate to in their own lives to explain the world around them,” says David Evans, president of the National Science Teachers Association, which plans to release a position statement in early 2018 that supports teaching climate science.

The association recommends having students evaluate the world around them by doing field work and collecting samples, and then using their findings to create graphs, videos and interactive media.

NSTA.org’s Climate Science page offers several resources, including some that address mailings by the Heartland Institute, an Illinois organization that shipped a booklet titled Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming to tens of thousands of science teachers in early 2017. The booklet emphasized viewpoints and debates rather than climate science itself, Evans says.

NSTA responded by offering teachers a free e-book, Ocean’s Effect on Weather and Climate.

“The only thing we should teach in science class is science,” he says. “People’s political, social and philosophical views don’t belong. We want students to learn the science, which can inform their views.”

The National Center for Science Education also offers several ideas for making climate change personal and meaningful. The center suggests localizing lesson plans to what’s happening in a state or community because, it says, climate change doesn’t just cause melting ice caps in the Arctic or higher tides in coastal areas.

Narratives help as well. Data demonstrates the scientific effect, but stories connect students with the real-life impacts. The center recommends incorporating videos or documentaries that showcase scientists explaining their discoveries.

At the same time, climate change fits naturally into a range of lessons, including those about the earth, atmosphere, ocean and environment. The topic also pertains to biology, chemistry and physics.

Interdisciplinary collaborations with other teachers let students explore climate science in geography, social studies and language arts.

In the end, the center recommends crafting hopeful messages around climate change.

Although the topic can trigger feelings of anger, fear, guilt and hopelessness, lesson plans that incorporate solutions-based discussions have been effective. Concepts of renewable energy or environmental engineering can also be the subjects of ongoing projects and long-term research.

Supporting teachers

A key component of incorporating climate science into the classroom without controversy is ensuring teachers are prepared. While teaching AP Environmental Science in 2008 at Evergreen High School in Evergreen, Colorado, Cheryl Manning faced a complaint from parents, which moved to the superintendent’s office.

After the incident was resolved, Manning was determined to learn how to teach climate science in a way that would respect everyone's views. After training, she now focuses on data in her lessons.

“I ensure students have the opportunity to work with data,” she says. “That’s what real scientists do—they don’t talk about the what-ifs.”

Manning prioritizes units that integrate satellite data, ocean temperatures and atmospheric conditions. She also worked with the Climate Literacy & Energy Awareness Network to develop the Cleanet.org website, which provides guidance on incorporating NGSS-aligned climate curriculum. Lesson plans include solutions-based approaches to topics such as renewable energy.

“Any teacher who is asked to teach climate science needs a significant amount of professional development, supported by the school, that emphasizes the science as well as the solutions,” says Manning, who is also president of the National Earth Science Teachers Association.

“Part of that training is learning to deal with parents who may not be entirely happy about the teaching of climate science. As long as you keep your science hat on and don’t get into the emotional issues, there’s little anyone can argue with.”

Like NSTA, the National Earth Science Teachers Association also plans to release a position statement in favor of teaching climate science later this year.

Another free resource is the “Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change,” created by The Paleontological Research Institution, which runs the Museum of the Earth and Cayuga Nature Center in Ithaca, New York. The institute set up a crowdfunding campaign to mail the guides to science teachers across the country for free. With seven months left, the campaign is nearly fully funded.

“If you consider the average age of today’s teachers, most were never trained in climate science and didn’t receive professional development on climate science in their undergraduate teaching programs,” says Alex Moore, the institute’s senior education associate who created the GiveGab campaign. “This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for us,” she adds.

“We can reach out to teachers, who each reach 100 or more students, and they need the administrative support to incorporate (climate science) into curriculum that is already packed tight.”


Carolyn Crist is a writer based in Athens, Georgia.