Experts say preparing the next generation to combat climate change involves rethinking how American public schools teach science

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By Josh Archote

Climate change is what science educator Laura Tucker would call a “wicked problem.” 

Its impacts aren’t immediately obvious to many and require proactive, coordinated responses from governments across the world. It’s the kind of global issue that connects science to every other subject: politics, economics, sustainability, social justice and many more.  

This offers science teachers an opportunity to rethink how they teach the subject, and science more generally, to prepare the next generation to deal with global warming, Tucker said.  

“The great thing about climate change is that it’s not a simple thing. Because of all these interconnected systems, it doesn’t have an easy answer,” she said. “It crosses not just science but this whole socioeconomic world and a lot of climate justice issues. I could justify teaching all topics, all subjects K-12 with climate change as the thread all the way through.” 

Experts like Tucker say the push to teach climate change in schools is intertwined with a larger discussion around how educators teach science in K-12 schools in the U.S.  

The Next Generation Science Standards and Climate Change

Carol O’Donnell, executive director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) and a member of the Interacademy Partnership Global Council on Science Education, said the SSEC was born out of the idea that the U.S. needed to do a better job in educating youth in science. 

“As the years have progressed, we have shifted from teaching students in a didactic way, where teachers held all the information and stood in the front of a room and told you what you needed to know,” O’Donnell said. “Over time, science education became more object driven, where we wanted students to engage in inquiry and curiosity in a classroom and solve problems.” 

This kind of inquiry-based learning emphasizes students’ ability to assess truth by encouraging critical thinking and problem solving, not memorizing facts, which are subject to change. In the classroom, O’Donnell said, this involves hands-on activities, investigation and posing questions—science is taught as it should be: a process.  

Over the past 10 years, educators have started to recognize the importance of using inquiry-based science education and tackling issues like climate change. 

In 2011, the National Research Council released a “A Framework for K-12 Science Education,” the first U.S. science curriculum guide to embed climate change and evolution—two politically charged science topics—into its standards.  

Those standards are the basis of the Next Generation Science Standards. Forty-four states either use the NGSS explicitly or have written their own standards using the NGSS as a framework for science education in public schools. 

The NGSS have moved teachers toward inquiry-based teaching, a necessary but difficult approach for educators to grasp, Tucker said. 

Tucker has been teaching educators how to teach science in K-12 schools since the late ’70s. She’s also co-author of Understanding Climate Change, a guide for teaching climate change in middle school and high school. 

“It’s great that our education system is starting to head back to the way our brains are designed to learn in the first place. We do not have factoid-based brains,” Tucker said. “But it’s a new thing for teachers.” 

The NGSS emphasize students’ ability to pose questions and investigate to find answers, observe patterns, understand cause and effect and connect the importance of science to students’ lives and the world around them. 

For example, instead of teachers standing in front of the classroom and teaching students facts about climate change, a hands-on, interactive experiment demonstrating the greenhouse effect could be more effective in gaging students’ curiosity and helping students understand the material.   

“Instead of teaching factoids and kids spitting them out on a test, they now have to demonstrate in different kinds of ways that they understand a concept rather than factoids,” Tucker said. “That’s been kind of tough for teachers to get their heads around that because they’ve been trained to teach in other ways.” 

Although the NGSS include guidelines on teaching climate change and sustainability, not all states are teaching it adequately, according to the National Center for Science Education and Texas Freedom Network Education, which gave 14 states that use the NGSS a C+ or worse on addressing climate change.  

The report concludes that better guidelines are needed and authors of curricula shouldn’t assume teachers understand the underlying science of climate change.  

Read more about how teachers give students mixed messages on climate change. 

Using Students’ Communities as a Laboratory

Experts say another crucial aspect of preparing the next generation with the science tools they need is showing students that they can have an impact on the world around them.  

O’Donnell gave an example of a module students complete through the Smithsonian Science for Global Goals Project, a sustainable development project.  

At the beginning of the module, students are asked if they believe they can make a difference in their community to control the spread of mosquito-borne diseases. Most say no.  

“First of all, they have no content knowledge about mosquito-borne diseases. And then they have no agency,” O’Donnell said. “They don’t believe they can actually make a difference in their community.” 

By engaging students in community projects and using their communities as a laboratory to apply what they learn in class, students can overcome this sense of helplessness, which can lead to changes in behavior.  

“The same is true of climate change. ‘Do you understand climate change?’ That’s content knowledge. And do you have any sense you can make a difference in your community?” O’Donnell said. “They typically say no until they recognize there are a lot of things they can do locally that are in their control that can make a difference.” 

A 2020 study published in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed journal covering science and medicine, suggests that climate education can have significant impacts on student behavior.  

Researchers from San Jose University in California surveyed college graduates five years after taking an intensive one-year university course on climate change and found that students made pro-environment decisions and developed strong personal connections to climate change solutions at least in part because of the experiences they gained from the course.  

The average course graduate cut individual carbon emissions by 2.86 tons of carbon dioxide per year. If similar education were provided to just 16% of high school students in middle- to high-income countries, nearly 19 gigatons of CO2 emissions could be avoided by 2050, according to the study. 

But there’s a catch: simply teaching students about climate change isn’t enough.  

The researchers from San Jose concluded that connecting science to students’ lives, allowing students to create change in a community of their choice and creating a culture devoted to stewardship and action were critical to the course’s influence on students’ behavior. 

Studies like this have prompted climate activists and politicians to call for mandatory climate change education. 

The Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., has called for climate action projects in every school by 2025, citing the PLOS One study as evidence for the need for wide-scale climate education.  

In the summer of 2020, New Jersey became the first state to mandate climate education in public schools. A week after President Joe Biden was elected, former Education Secretary John King and New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman signed an open letter urging the Biden-Harris Administration to implement climate change education into their agenda. 

No such actions are included in the president’s climate plan or actions he’s taken so far.  

Read more about how the Biden Administration has lived up to its climate plans.  

“Our education sector can work to mitigate its environmental impact and work to build resilience in preparation for climate change,” the letter said. “With over 50 million children enrolled in public schools, education can help prepare children and youth to advance a more sustainable world.” 

Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, scholars and climate activists also signed the letter.  

“Science education should no longer be this belief that a teacher holds all of the knowledge, that they then disseminate that information into an empty vessel that’s sitting in front of them called students,” O’Donnell said. “I think there’s always been this belief that if we tell you as much as we can about what we know, you’re going to be smarter. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you should be able to use your knowledge for social good.”

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