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Noah Canton teaches 6th, 7th and 8th grade science at Hillcrest Elementary in Oakland, California. This past fall, his students endured wildfires, hazardous air and power shut offs. In each of his classes, he asked his students to tell him why they thought the fires in California were getting so much worse.

“The grasses are so dry these days,” one student says in a quiet voice, “because California itself does not get enough rain.” Another adds, “Air pressure also has to do with heat. So, since climate change is heating up the world, it might also affect the wind.”

Canton’s students have learned a lot about climate change from him and from living in an area experiencing immediate impacts of a warming world. Canton says teaching climate change in a place like Oakland is an imperative. Across the country, states, districts and individual teachers are trying to figure out how, when and whether they can teach climate change. Canton started to teach it in 2011, even before the state adopted a set of standards for how and when to do it.

“I was nervous to teach climate change because I didn’t think I was supposed to,” he says.

Then in 2013, California adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which included the recommendation to teach climate change. The NGSS were created by teacher representatives from 26 states, in collaboration with the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a non-profit organization called Achieve. The standards lay out what students should know in the sciences at different grade levels. It was the first time in 23 years that a national coalition came together to create science education standards and the first time such standards formally recommended the teaching of climate change.

Related: Teaching global warming in a charged political climate

But whether, and what, a student ultimately learns about climate change in school depends in large part on the state or district they live in. The NGSS are voluntary for states and districts to adopt. There is no federal mandate to teach climate change. Less than half of states have adopted the NGSS. More than a dozen states don’t have any language in their science standards about human-caused climate change, according to the National Center for Science Education. And with no national framework, even when it’s taught, it’s hard to know exactly how it’s being taught.

Caroline Preston is an editor at The Hechinger Report. She’s been reporting on whether and how climate change is being taught in classrooms across the country, including in Oklahoma, a state where the science itself faces political challenges.

“Every year in Oklahoma, there’s a bill or two that pops up that would arguably make it more difficult for teachers to teach climate change,” she says.

The state has adopted a modified version of the NGSS. Preston says it leaves out some notable context.

“It’s more ambiguous as to the causes of climate change, and the human role in causing climate change, than some other states,” she says. “So, it does talk about the warming climate, but it’s not as explicit as some other states.”

Still, in Piedmont, Oklahoma, sixth-grade science teacher Melissa Lau teaches her students that there aren’t multiple viewpoints when it comes to the reality of climate change.

“What I try to explain to them is that in science, we don’t debate the science, because the science is settled,” Lau says. “In social studies, there might be more area for debate as far as what’s the best route that a government might take to mitigate the issue.”

Teaching climate change took on a sense of urgency for Lau when she earned a spot on a month-long trip with other teachers and with climate researchers to Alaska’s North Slope a few years ago. It was there that she saw firsthand what was happening with snow and ice melt, changing vegetation and animal migration.

“I think that was my crystallizing moment,” she says. “Like, this is happening and it’s accelerating. So what am I doing in my personal life? And then what more could I do? What conversations can I have with them?”

Many of the parents of Lau’s students work in the oil and natural gas industries in Oklahoma, which can make conversations about the human causes of climate change difficult.

“I have family who works for the fossil fuel industry,” she says. “I have family that is still in agriculture. They raise cattle. I just make sure it’s very clear that I’m not attacking your dad or your mom. They’re not bad people just because they happen to work for Devon or Chesapeake. They’re supporting your family.”

For many students, Lau’s class is the first time they learn about climate change and the science behind it. Caroline Preston spent time reporting from Lau’s classroom during a two-day lesson on climate change, talking with students about what they were learning and how they felt about it.

“Some of them, by the end of that second day, felt more upset about what was happening,” Preston says. “They felt like they understood it [climate change] better, so they could see the negative consequences of it more clearly, and they were more worried and, in the case of one student, even pretty angry about society’s role in this.”

For both Lau in Oklahoma and Canton in Oakland, they struggle with one of the big things the NGSS don’t layout — how to teach students about climate change and maintain a sense of hope rather than despair.

“I had a parent tell me that their child had a hard time sleeping at night because of what she learned about climate change,” Canton says. “I felt terrible about it. It made me realize, OK, this is a delicate situation here.”

Canton holds “Fridays For Future,” with his students, where they do proactive projects that make them feel part of positive change. It’s part of an international movement to try and make change that grew out of the Youth Climate Strikes of 2019. One project Canton’s students took on was applying to make their school an Ocean Guardian School through a grant with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This allowed them to install solar panels and an energy monitoring system at their school. They’ve also done recycling campaigns and videos to teach kids in the younger grades about climate change.

In Oklahoma, Lau, too, says she’s careful not to spend too much time talking with students about all of the negative outcomes that could follow climate change, but rather, on how they could use science to address it.

“I understand how emotional this can be,” she says. “You don’t want to overwhelm them with all of this doom and gloom to where they feel like they can’t do anything.”

This story about teaching climate change was produced by APM Reports in partnership with 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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