Global warming and its consequences can provoke anxiety in young people. Educators need to be trained on how best to teach about climate change.
By Thomas Day
“Are we going to die?”
High school science teacher Kirstin Milks starts her course on environmental change every year by allowing students to ask questions. Invariably, one of her students at a school in the capital of the U.S. state of Indiana asks if global warming is going to kill us all.
The question captures the anxiety that climate change provokes in today’s youth. It also begs the question of how best to teach climate change in schools.
Climate change is often presented as a partisan issue in states like Indiana, where I attend university and where voters generally favor the conservative Republican Party. But popular opinion about whether climate change should be part of the curriculum is not as divided as the polarized U.S. electorate might suggest.
According to data compiled by Yale University researchers, 67% of Americans believe global warming is happening and 77% think schools should teach children about the causes, consequences and potential solutions to global warming. Even in Indiana, where most citizens do not believe global warming is caused mainly by humans, 69% of adults favor teaching children about global warming.
As it turns out, Indiana’s schools are not necessarily doing so.
Educational standards in the state are often limited and outdated. A curriculum standard for 8th grade students — aged roughly 13 — refers to the “Theory of Climate Change” — terminology that implicitly questions the reality of climate change and minimizes its urgency.
Face-to-face time with climate scientists
Teachers are often uncertain about how to teach students about climate change or lack the resources to do so.
“Climate Change is happening,” said Adam Scribner, director of the STEM Education Institute at Indiana University.
“It’s here, whether or not students are actually learning the real science behind it or if the teacher has the right resources to teach it,” said Scribner, one of the leaders of Indiana University’s Educating for Environmental Change, which is funded by the university’s Environmental Resilience Institute.
The institute held its third annual workshop for teachers this past summer. The workshop’s main purpose was to explain evidence of climate change, its impacts and mitigation strategies. The workshop trained teachers, ranging from elementary to high school, about how they can approach the subject in class.
“The most important thing we did was we gave teachers face-to-face time with climate scientists,” said Scribner. By allowing discussions with experts, teachers learned how to convey the information to students. “It is not about throwing evidence at students, but about getting students to think about how to solve, rather than teaching about the problems.”
‘It’s a system problem.’
Teachers can have difficulty providing appropriate resources and activities, Scribner said. Kids at different ages need age-appropriate activities, observed Milks, who organized a workshop. “That’s why so many environmental efforts that have felt successful and that have built children’s identities have been about recycling,” she noted. “It builds the identity of environmental stewards because of the work.”
When students progress in their education, it becomes important for them to understand the full scope of the problem and required solutions. “By the time students get to secondary school, you have to also have a sense that it’s a system problem,” Milks said.
The workshop went beyond science and how to talk about it. “My students need to know about the science piece, but they also need to know about the lobbying industry,” Milks said. Informed of the cultural dynamics, the students can better grasp factors that can impede or promote action.
The goal at the end of each class period is for students to “not feel hopeless but hopeful for the future,” Scribner said.