How teachers bring climate science into the classroom

On a recent Monday, just days after school started, sixth graders at Samuel M. Inman Middle School in Atlanta shifted in their seats as earth science teacher Spence Ford slid a finger across the whiteboard, moving the image of an ice capped glacier to reveal a brown mass of earth. The dramatic depiction of the death of Okjokull, memorialized by environmental advocates on Aug. 18 as the first glacier in Iceland lost to climate change, captured their attention.

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“What is the point of having a funeral for a non-living glacier?” Ford asked.

“It is a message to the future that global warming is going to get worse and we need to do something about it,” said one student.

Within minutes, his students had moved on to the day’s assigned task, but Ford was pleased with the detour. “I am very intentional about bringing up climate change and social justice in the curriculum, but I don’t always know how I’m going to do it or when I’m going to do it,” he said.

As students across the metro area settle into a new school year, teachers like Ford continue to search for ways to bring conversations about climate change into their classrooms. Young people are playing an increasingly prominent role in environmental activism, from the worldwide student walkouts inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg to Zero Hour, the youth-led organization that trains youths to take action around climate change.

While 79% of adult Georgians believe schools should teach about the causes, consequences and potential solutions to global warming, according to a 2018 survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, young people may leave school lacking the climate literacy they need as the next generation of CEOs, managers and employees of global companies, some educators said.

Science textbooks may be outdated or lack information, and some teachers may not have the time or the training to bring in outside resources. In a National Center for Science Education survey of teachers from the 2014-15 school year, fewer than 50% of teachers said they had formal coursework in climate change, and two-thirds were interested in professional development in climate science. Teachers may also face resistance from parents or communities for teaching an issue that some perceive as controversial or may not believe exists.

In his 17 years teaching, Ford has taught in five school districts — rural and urban — across Georgia and North Carolina, exposing him to a range of approaches and attitudes toward teaching climate change. “I try to create the idea of us as earthlings and as part of the world,” Ford said. “That is where science is struggling because they are not making a human connection.”

Depending on a child's grade level, those connections can look very different.

At Friends School of Atlanta in DeKalb County, elementary science teacher Joanna Gerber focuses on getting students outside. Pre-K and kindergarten students visit the school garden to study milkweed and how it supports monarch butterflies. First and second graders mark the growth of tulip bulbs and can compare data to see if bulbs appear sooner or later than the prior year. By third and fourth grade, students begin learning about climate and weather.

Some units give them a path to take action. For a unit on bird study, students researched plants that were unhealthy for birds and handed out informational flyers to community members, she said. “I see a lot of young people wanting action,” Gerber said. “The challenge is to keep the momentum going.”

Kim Cobb, parent of a seventh grader at Inman Middle School, was convinced the momentum was dead when last year she opened her daughter’s earth science book and discovered a mere 1.5 pages on climate change.

Cobb, who also happens to be an associate professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech, was dismayed.

She believes textbooks can be used in conjunction with other resources, but has noted some opposition to utilizing regional sources that would help give kids an understanding of how climate change is directly impacting their communities.

At Georgia Tech, students often arrive in Cobb’s class with limited knowledge of climate issues. “They may know the broad question of climate change, but they don’t know where the electricity is coming from that they plug their iPhone into,” Cobb said.

To become climate literate, students must have an understanding of topics such as energy systems and economics, the history of coal dependency, climate policy and solutions and community resilience, she said.

Georgia schools follow the Science Georgia Standards of Excellence, a set of performance expectations that describe what students should know after completing a course or grade, said Juan Carlos Aguilar, science program manager for the Georgia Department of Education. The standards, which are revised every four to five years depending on available funding, take a broader view of climate change, such as the relationship of living organisms with the environment, how change impacts conditions under which organisms live and how organisms react to change, he said.

Sixth graders in earth science must understand how energy from the sun impacts the Earth’s weather and climate, for example, while high school biology students must be able to design a solution to reduce the impact of a human activity on the environment. How teachers meet those standards is up to the teacher.

“What teachers do in their classrooms can be all over the map,” said Heidi Schweingruber, director of the Board of Science Education at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Some communities have greater challenges than others implementing curriculum and facing resistance from parents, she said.

For Hannah Testa, the resistance came not from outside of school but within. When a teacher learned about Testa’s environmental advocacy efforts, Testa, 16, found herself debating the existence of global warming with the educator.

At her elementary school in Forsyth County, teachers didn’t spend a lot of time teaching climate change, she said, but since entering West Forsyth High School, Testa, now a junior, said she has had more access to that kind of instruction and information.

High school students in Georgia are required to complete four units of science to graduate, and courses such as environmental science, earth systems, oceanography and meteorology can offer deeper insight into climate issues.

During her freshman year, Testa took AP Human Geography, in which they discussed human connections to the environment, climate policy and current events including the presidential election and Brexit. “We are talking more about real world issues and climate change than I used to,” said Testa.

Educators say that a school curriculum focused on observation and action can help students feel as if they are doing something about the issues while also gaining the depth of understanding needed to navigate a future that will inevitably be impacted by issues of climate change.

"I am very impressed with the direction the framework and standards are pursuing, which is to have kids engage with data and learn to develop and critique evidence-based arguments," Schweingruber said. "It is an opportunity to look at what claims are being made, what they are based on and ask, 'Do I buy it?'"

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