K-12

Teaching global warming in a charged political climate

Their training doesn’t cover it, many textbooks don’t touch it, but teachers are taking on climate change anyway

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teaching kids about climate change

Science teacher Melissa Lau guided her sixth graders at Piedmont Intermediate School through a lesson on the relationship between carbon emissions and extreme weather.

PIEDMONT, Okla. — “Weather is chaotic,” said Melissa Lau, a sixth grade teacher in this bedroom community outside of Oklahoma City. “What does that mean to you?”

“It’s another word for ‘crazy,’ ” said one boy.

“My sister got hit by a golf ball-sized piece of hail,” volunteered a kid with glasses and a tuft of dyed blond hair.

The students didn’t know it yet, but they were about to engage in some myth busting about perhaps the biggest menace to their futures: climate change.

Lau, 42, has taught science for seven years at Piedmont Intermediate School, which is housed in an airy, modern building overlooking a wheat field and serves predominantly middle-class families, many of whom work in the oil and gas industry. For much of that time, she has sought to acquaint students with the basics of the planet’s warming. On this next-to-last week of the school year, Lau was squeezing in a lesson exploring the link between increased carbon emissions and extreme weather events such as floods and hurricanes. A goal was to give students the knowledge to debunk the argument often made by climate change deniers that a few frigid days disprove climate change; even in a warming climate, there will still be many cold days.

Schools across the United States are wrestling with how to incorporate the study of climate change into the classroom as its proximity and perils grow ever more apparent. According to a recent NPR/Ipsos poll, 86 percent of teachers and more than 80 percent of parents say the subject should be taught in school. But survey results in 2016 showed that while three-quarters of science teachers said they included lessons about climate change, they devoted little time to it and faced an array of obstacles.

The science behind climate change is complicated and evolving, and most teachers aren’t prepared to teach it well. Many textbooks don’t touch the topic, according to science educators.

“Climate and earth sciences more generally have been historically neglected in American science education,” said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, which tracks anti-science education legislation and develops curricula like the one Lau was teaching. “Lots of teachers feel they don’t have the content knowledge or pedagogical know-how to teach climate change effectively.”

And then there are the politics, especially in ruby-red Oklahoma. Educators here say they occasionally receive questions and pushback from parents when classes cover climate change. A state agency funded by the oil and gas industry pumps money into teacher training and classroom materials, including books featuring a cartoon character called “Petro Pete,” with the goal of promoting fossil fuels. (The agency, the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board, held a workshop for teachers in Lau’s district a few years ago; she said she salvaged the free lab equipment from the kits that were distributed and threw away the rest.) And state lawmakers routinely introduce bills that critics say would encourage teachers to spread misinformation on evolution and climate change.

This year’s Oklahoma Science Education Act, for example, would have implicitly endorsed educating students on both “the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories,” even though the scientific consensus around manmade climate change is overwhelming. The bill died in committee. In other states, legislators have introduced bills to roll back science standards that discuss climate change, teach alternatives to the topic and make it easier for members of the public to challenge classroom materials they find objectionable.

“Every year we have to fight one or two bills,” Lau said. But she added that even here in Oklahoma there’s a growing hunger for accurate information on climate change: “I don’t get the resistance I got at the beginning of my career because it’s getting harder and harder to deny.”

Related: Will new standards improve elementary science education?

teaching kids about climate change

Melissa Lau, who sometimes wears this button to class, says many teachers want to educate their students about climate change but find the topic complicated and “overwhelming.”

Wearing a jean jacket with an “I teach climate change” button, Lau walked her students through the first day of her two-day lesson. She dimmed the lights for a video that used a discussion of sports doping to explain the probability aspects of climate change. Steroids can make it easier for players to hit home runs, the video explained. But it’s impossible to know if any single home run is due to doping, so to assess the effects of the drugs one has to observe a player’s performance over time. Same with climate change: Some extreme weather events occur regardless of whether humans are pumping extra carbon into the atmosphere. Scientists can determine if these emissions are affecting the climate only by following patterns over time.

To collect their own data on how probability affects extreme weather, Lau handed out dice, some “loaded” with extra sixes indicating extra carbon. The students then sent the dice clattering again and again across tables to test the extent to which the extra carbon contributed over time to high tallies, which indicated extreme weather events. With the end-of-class bell about to ring, Lau put up a photograph on her smartboard of sea ice and an eroding coastline from her trip to Alaska the year prior.

As they scooted out of the classroom, a few of the sixth graders said this was the first they’d heard of climate change. Others said they knew a little about it. “The greenhouse gas gets trapped in our atmosphere and it’s melting ice caps,” explained Jewel Horn, who said she’d learned about the topic previously in science class. She said she didn’t worry or talk about the topic much: “It’s not that big of a problem unless we do nothing.”

In teaching about climate change, Lau says she is fortunate to have support from her administration. She has also learned how to choose her words carefully, especially given that so many people in the state (including members of her family) earn a living from carbon-intensive industries such as farming and oil and gas. “I tell my students, just because your parents are currently working for Devon or Chesapeake, what they are doing every day is not bad and evil,” she said, mentioning two of the big Oklahoma-based energy companies. “It’s just that overall we need to start looking for other directions.”

teaching kids about climate change

Many students at Piedmont Intermediate School have parents who work in the oil and gas industry. When talking about climate change, science teacher Melissa Lau says it’s important to remind students that working in oil and gas isn’t “bad and evil,” but that it’s time for the energy system as a whole to begin embracing less carbon-intensive solutions.

Other teachers share her views that teaching climate change is complicated and, unfortunately, politicized, but that it’s becoming easier to do. Melinda Landry, who teaches science at Patriot High School in Nokesville, Virginia, joked that she uses the word “conservative” only when it comes to scientific modeling, and keeps politics out of all discussions. In Lincoln, Nebraska, high school science teacher Mary Morrow said that even in her right-leaning state, “I am seeing students come into my classroom concerned. Ten years ago, you teach climate change and you could see eyes roll.”

Related: How students learn from super green schools that use zero energy

Teaching about climate change got a boost six years ago with the release of the Next Generation Science Standards, which instruct teachers to introduce students to climate change and its human causes beginning in middle school. To date, 20 states plus the District of Columbia have adopted the standards, and many other states have embraced a modified version. All told, 37 states recognize human-caused climate change in their science standards, says the National Center for Science Education.

Oklahoma’s standards, introduced in 2014, are based on the Next Generation Science Standards, but while they discuss human effects on the environment, they do not directly attribute climate change to human activities. Even so, some state legislators called the language on climate science “one-sided.”

“Our standards are less explicit about climate change, but I would say they are still very rigorous when it comes to climate science,” said Tiffany Neill, who oversees curriculum and instruction for the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Lau currently serves on a committee helping to update the standards as part of a five-year cycle.

Even in states whose standards call for teachers to educate students on climate science and humans’ influence on warming, it takes a while for that guidance to filter into the classroom, said David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teaching Association. Just because something is in the standards doesn’t mean it’s being taught universally, or effectively, especially given that textbooks take time to be updated.

“We’re in a transition period right now,” said Evans, whose group issued a position statement last fall endorsing the teaching of climate change.

While some textbooks may offer teachers little help on the topic, a growing number of online materials, including those from Michigan State University, PBS, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Branch’s group, have emerged to fill the gaps. And while educators don’t typically learn about the topic in their undergraduate teaching programs or even in graduate science programs, professional development opportunities are popping up, although teachers often have to cover the costs to attend.

It’s not just science teachers who are grappling with how to teach about climate change; the subject can intersect with social studies, economics, art, English and other topics, too. The social studies curriculum at Piedmont Intermediate emphasizes human interactions with the environment. It’s an opportunity to discuss how people are affected by natural disasters, which are intensifying because of climate change, says Angela DeLong, a social studies teacher at the school. This year, along with studying topics such as deforestation and fishing rights, sixth graders learned about Hurricane Sandy, researching how the disaster affected families and how communities recovered.

But DeLong says she wishes she had more knowledge of the subject, and more guidance on it from the state social studies standards. “I just don’t feel qualified,” she said. “I don’t want to teach something that I’m just kind of guessing at.”

Related: The silence of school leaders on climate change

teaching kids about climate change

Growing up in rural western Oklahoma, Melissa Lau says she wasn’t encouraged to go into science as a career. She became a music teacher instead, but eventually got certified to teach science and now takes advantage of all sorts of professional opportunities for gaining climate change knowledge.

Like others in the building, she often turns to Lau. Last summer, Lau, who is tall with straight, blond hair, spent 32 days in northern Alaska on a professional training for teachers. This spring, she attended a workshop in Washington, D.C., and in June she introduced other Oklahoma educators to the lesson she tested in these final days of school.

Lau says she is dedicating herself to learning about climate change in part because of her circuitous path to the profession. Growing up in western rural Oklahoma, she loved nature but wasn’t encouraged to consider science as a career. Instead she became a music teacher, but didn’t find as much joy in it as she had hoped. She returned to her first passion and became certified to teach science in 2010. “A series of small epiphanies,” she says, fueled her concern about climate change and the importance of teaching it.

But here in landlocked Oklahoma, says Lau, it can be relatively easy to ignore climate change because so far its effects locally have been relatively subtle. Droughts are intensifying, researchers are trying to breed hot-weather-resistant cattle, Lau wonders if the horned toads she remembers from her youth are thinning in number. The deadly tornadoes that have longed plagued Oklahoma are growing in number, too, though limited data has made it difficult for researchers to tease out the twisters’ relationship to climate change. But her Alaska trip put the changes that come with climate change directly in sight, providing her plenty of data to share with her students.

Standing before her sixth graders on the second day of her lesson, Lau showed them data she’d collected from that trip. There were measurements of melting permafrost, photographs of roads sinking as the frost under them thawed and pictures of coastal villages that were having to pick up and move.

“They’re moving the entire town,” Lau said. “In the United States, that’s happening.”

After the lesson, Jewel Horn, the sixth grader, called it “fun.” “I like getting to read about climate change,” she said. But she noted that the second day of the lesson made her more worried about the Earth’s warming, “because now that I know more about the facts of climate change it’s a little bit easier to believe. It feels like more of a threat.”

teaching kids about climate change

Students at Piedmont Intermediate rolled dice — some “loaded” with extra sixes indicating extra carbon — to collect data on the likelihood of carbon emissions contributing to extreme weather. Then they recorded their data on whiteboards in neat, descending rows.

Her classmate Dan Nguyen had a darker outlook. “Now I’m thinking that we’re in a crisis,” he said. It made him a little angry, he said, and he felt people “should be more careful of what they are doing, what they are using.”

Nguyen’s fears aside, there’s something of a disconnect between the urgency of the scientific view of climate crisis and the relatively dispassionate manner in which Lau must talk about it. Globally, children have been among those raising the alarm on climate change and calling for action, through a lawsuit and school walkouts. But Lau’s students are still young, far from voting age, and she says she has to tread carefully, to find a way to teach the subject “compassionately but head on.”

“That’s part of the challenge of teaching climate change — it’s so multifaceted, we are learning so much every day,” she said. “It’s difficult to find the resources to convey the message to your students at the age-appropriate level.”

Lau said she had to find a balance between “getting them to understand the severity of it but at the same time leaving them hopeful.”

“I don’t want them to grow up without that hope.”

This story on teaching kids about climate change was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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