A Hot Topic: Climate Change Coming To Classrooms

Mar 27, 2013
Originally published on March 27, 2013 11:29 am

By the time today's K-12 students grow up, the challenges posed by climate change are expected to be severe and sweeping. Now, for the first time, new nationwide science standards due out soon will recommend that U.S. public school students learn about the climatic shift taking place.

Mark McCaffrey of the National Center for Science Education says the lessons will fill a big gap.

"Only 1 in 5 [students] feel like they've got a good handle on climate change from what they've learned in school," he says, adding that surveys show two-thirds of students say they're not learning much at all about it. "So the state of climate change education in the U.S. is abysmal."

We all learn the water cycle. But how many can draw a picture of the carbon cycle? It would include plants taking in carbon to grow, then dying, and eventually turning into fossil fuels like coal and oil, which then put carbon back into the atmosphere when burned.

Even when this is taught, McCaffrey says, climate is often sidelined. Why take Earth science, when what you need to get into college is biology and chemistry? A recent report on climate literacy recommends sweeping changes to address such issues.

Political Pressure

On top of this, there's the political battle over how climate change is taught. Last month, Colorado became the 18th state in recent years — including seven this year — to consider an "Academic Freedom Act."

"The bill will go toward creating an atmosphere of open inquiry," Joshua Youngkin of the Discovery Institute told state lawmakers. The institute is the same group that's long questioned evolution and the way it's taught. Now it has crafted suggested legislation that also targets global warming, although Youngkin testified that the aim is not to ban teaching about climate change.

"It just gives teachers a simple right," he told lawmakers, "to know that they can teach both sides of a controversy objectively, and in a scientific manner, in order to induce critical thinking in their student body."

But critics point out there is no controversy within science: Climate change is happening, and it's largely driven by humans. So far, only Tennessee and Louisiana have passed legislation meant to protect teachers who question this.

Still, educators say the politicization of climate change has led many teachers to avoid the topic altogether. Or, they say some do teach it as a controversy, showing Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth one day, and the British documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle the next. The end result for students? Confusion.

The new science guidelines could provoke more pushback.

"To the extent that these standards do paint a picture that I think runs counter to the scientific evidence, we're going to make sure that we point that out," says James Taylor, a senior fellow with the Heartland Institute. The free-market think tank is working on its own curriculum questioning humans' role in global warming.

Raising Difficult Issues

The new science standards are voluntary, but 26 states helped develop them, and it's hoped that even more will eventually adopt them.

"There was never a debate about whether climate change would be in there," says Heidi Schweingruber of the National Research Council, which created the framework for the standards. "It is a fundamental part of science, and so that's what our work is based on, the scientific consensus."

Schweingruber says a lot of thought did go into how to deliver what can be crushingly depressing information, without freaking kids out. For instance, while students will learn that humans cause global warming, they'll also be taught what kinds of actions can have a positive impact in helping to reduce it.

McCaffrey, of the National Center for Science Education, says many teachers will need training themselves on climate science. He'd also like to see them prepared for the pressures that come with teaching it.

"We've heard stories of students who learn about climate change," he says. "Then they go home and tell their parents, and everybody's upset because the parents are driving their kids to the soccer game, and the kids are feeling guilty about being in the car and contributing to this global problem."

McCaffrey says this raises all kinds of psychological and social issues that are difficult to grapple with, yet essential for this generation of students to take on.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

New federal standards for K through 12 science education are due out soon. This is the first update since the mid-'90s. And for the first time, the guidelines advise teaching students about climate change.

As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, it's expected to fill a big gap.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: By the time today's students grow up, the challenges posed by climate change are expected to be severe and sweeping. Yet, polls show they know little of it.

Mark McCaffrey is with the National Center for Science Education.

MARK MCCAFFREY: Only one-in-five feel like they've got a good handle on climate change from what they've learned in school. So the state of climate change education in the U.S. is abysmal.

LUDDEN: We all learn the water cycle. But how many can draw a picture of the carbon cycle? With plants taking in carbon to grow, then dying and eventually turning into fossil fuels like coal and oil, which then put carbon back into the atmosphere when burned. Even when this is taught, McCaffrey says climate is often sidelined. Why take Earth science, when you need biology and chemistry to get into college?

On top of this, there's the political battle over how climate change is taught. Last month, Colorado state lawmakers considered a so-called Academic Freedom Act.

JOSHUA YOUNGKIN: The bill will go toward creating an atmosphere of open inquiry.

LUDDEN: That's Joshua Youngkin of the Discovery Institute, which helped write the bill. It's the same group that's questioned evolution, and the way it's taught. Now the institute is targeting global warming. Though Youngkin told lawmakers the aim is not to ban climate change from the classroom.

YOUNGKIN: It just gives teachers a simple right. To know that they can teach both sides of a controversy objectively, in a scientific manner, in order to induce critical thinking in their student body.

LUDDEN: But critics point out there is no controversy within science. Climate change is happening and it's largely driven by humans. This hasn't stopped 18 states from considering these academic freedom bills - seven this year. So far, only Tennessee and Louisiana have passed them.

Still, say educators, since climate change has been politicized, many teachers avoid it altogether. Or, they do teach two sides. One day, it's Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH")

AL GORE: Starting in 1970, there was a precipitous drop-off in the amount, and extent and thickness of the arctic ice cap.

LUDDEN: And the next, "The Great Global Warming Swindle."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE GREAT GLOBAL WARMING SWINDLE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Each day the news reports grow more fantastically apocalyptic.

LUDDEN: The end result for students: Confusion. The new science guidelines could provoke more push back. James Taylor is a senior fellow with the Heartland Institute. The free market think tank is working on its own curriculum, questioning man's role in global warming.

JAMES TAYLOR: To the extent that these standards do paint a picture that I think runs counter to the scientific evidence, we're going to make sure that we point that out.

LUDDEN: The new science standards are voluntary. But 26 states helped develop them and about 40 say they're likely to adopt them. Heidi Schweingruber is with the National Research Council, which created the framework for the standards.

HEIDI SCHWEINGRUBER: There was never a debate about whether climate change would be in there. It is a fundamental part of science, and so that's what our work is based on - the scientific consensus.

LUDDEN: Schweingruber says a lot of thought did go into how to deliver what can be crushingly depressing information, without freaking kids out.

SCHWEINGRUBER: Absolutely. So the idea that, OK, you're going to raise these problems with kids. But then also engage them and say what do we know about roles that we can have that are positive, in trying to steer things in different directions.

LUDDEN: In other words, reassure kids that while humans may cause global warming, they can also help reduce it.

Mark McCaffrey, of the National Center for Science Education, says many teachers will need training themselves on climate science. He'd also like to see them prepared for the pressures that come with teaching it.

MCCAFFREY: We've heard stories of students who learn about climate change, and then they go home and tell their parents. And everybody is upset because the parents are driving their kids to the soccer game, and the kids are feeling guilty about being in the car and contributing to this global problem. So it does raise a lot of very, very difficult psychological issues, sociological issues, and certainly inter-generational issues.

LUDDEN: Difficult, he says, but essential for this generation of students to take on.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.