8 Ways To Teach Climate Change In Almost Any Classroom

Apr 25, 2019

NPR/Ipsos conducted a national poll recently and found that more than 8 in 10 teachers — and a similar majority of parents — support teaching kids about climate change.

But in reality, it's not always happening: Fewer than half of K-12 teachers told us that they talk about climate change with their children or students. Again, parents were about the same.

The top reason that teachers gave in our poll for not covering climate change? "It's not related to the subjects I teach," 65% said.

Yet at the same time, we also heard from teachers and education organizations who are introducing the topic in subjects from social studies to math to English language arts, and at every grade level, from preschool on up.

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That raises the question: Where does climate change belong in the curriculum, anyway?

The "reality of human-caused climate change" is mentioned in at least 36 state standards, according to an analysis done for NPR Ed by Glenn Branch, the deputy director at the National Center for Science Education. But it typically appears only briefly — and most likely just in earth science classes in middle and high school. And, Branch says, that doesn't even mean that every student in those states learns about it: Only two states require students to take earth or environmental science classes to graduate from high school.

Joseph Henderson teaches in the environmental studies department at Paul Smith's College in upstate New York. He studies how climate change is taught in schools and believes it needs to be taught across many subjects.

"For so long this has been seen as an issue that is solely within the domain of science," he says. "There needs to be a greater engagement across disciplines, particularly looking at the social dimensions," such as the displacement of populations by natural disasters.

At the same time, there's a tension in pushing more educators to take this on. "I worry a lot about asking schools to solve yet another problem that society refuses to deal with."

As a potential response to this criticism, the nonprofit Ten Strands follows an "incremental infusion" model in California. In other words, environmental literacy becomes part of subjects and activities that are already in the curriculum instead of, the organization says, "burdening educators" with another stand-alone and complex area to cover.

We also heard from teachers who say they are searching for more ideas and resources to take on the topic of climate change. Here are some thoughts about how to broach the subject with students, no matter what subject you teach:

1. Do a lab.

Lab activities can be one of the most effective ways to show children how global warming works on an accessible scale.

Ellie Schaffer is a sixth-grader at Alice Deal Middle School in Washington, D.C. In science class, she has done simulations on greenhouse effects, using plastic wrap to trap the sun's heat. And she has used charcoal to see how black carbon from air pollution can speed the melting of ice.

These lessons have raised her awareness — and concern. "We've ignored climate change for a long time and now it's getting to be, like, a real problem, so we've gotta do something."

Many teachers we talked with mentioned NASA as a resource for labs and activities. The ones in this outline can be done with everyday materials such as ice, tinfoil, plastic bottles, rubber, light bulbs and a thermometer.

On the Earth Science Week website, there's a list of activities and lesson plans aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards. They range from simple to elaborate.

2. Show a movie.

Susan Fisher, a seventh-grade science teacher at South Woods Middle School in Syosset, N.Y., showed her students the 2016 documentary Before the Flood, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio journeying to five continents and the Arctic to see the effects of climate change. "It is our intention to make our students engaged citizens," Fisher says.

Before the Flood has an action page and an associated curriculum. Common Sense Media has a list of climate change-related movies for all ages.

The 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth and its 2017 sequel, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power, have curricular materials created in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation.

3. Assign a novel.

Rebecca Meyer is an eighth-grade English language arts teacher at Bronx Park Middle School in New York City.

She assigned her students a 2013 novel by Mindy McGinnis called Not a Drop to Drink.

"As we read the novel, kids made connections between what is happening today and the novel," Meyer says. "At the end of the unit, as a culminating project, students chose groups, researched current solutions for physical and economic water scarcity and created PSA videos using iMovie about the problem and how their solution could help to combat the issue."

She described the unit as a success. "They were very engaged; they loved it," she explains. "A lot of them shared this information with their families. When parents came in for parent-teacher conferences, they mentioned their kids had been talking to them about conserving water."

Not A Drop To Drink belongs to a subgenre of science fiction known as "cli-fi" (climate fiction) or sometimes eco-fiction. You can find lists of similar books at websites like Dragonfly.eco or at the Chicago Review of Books, which has a monthly Burning Worlds column about this kind of literature.

Looking for English topics for younger students? EL Education covers environmental topics, including water conservation and the impact of natural disasters, in its K-5 English language arts curriculum.

4. Do citizen science.

Terry Reed is the self-proclaimed "science guru" for seventh-graders at Prince David Kawananakoa Middle School in Honolulu. He has also spent a year sailing the Caribbean, and on his way, he collected water samples on behalf of a group called Adventure Scientists, to be tested for microplastics. (Spoiler: Even on remote, pristine beaches, all the samples had some.)

He has assigned his students to collect water samples from beaches near their homes to submit for the same project. He also has them take pictures of cloud formations and measure temperatures, to see changes in weather patterns over time. "One thing I stress to them, that in the next few years, they become the voting public," he says. "They need to be aware of the science."

5. Assign a research project, multimedia presentation or speech.

Gay Collins teaches public speaking at Waterford High School in Waterford, Conn. She is interested in "civil discourse" as a tool for problem-solving, so she encourages her students "to shape their speeches around critical topics, like the use of plastics, minimalism, and other environmental issues.

6. Talk about your personal experience.

Pamela Tarango teaches third grade at the Downtown Elementary School in Bakersfield, Calif. She tells her students about how the weather has changed there in her lifetime, getting hotter and drier: "In our Central Valley California city of Bakersfield, there has been a change in the winter climate. I told them about how, when I was growing up in the 1970s, we often had several two-and-three-hour delays to school starting because of dense tule fog, which affected visibility. We really never have those delays in the metropolitan area. It is only the outlying areas, which still have two-and-three-hour dense fog delays, and they are rare even for the rural areas."

(Although the Central Valley winter has indeed become hotter and drier because of climate change, recently a University of California, Berkeley study has attributed the reduction in tule fog specifically to declines in air pollution.)

7. Do a service project.

"I teach preschoolers and use the environment and our natural resources to highlight our everyday life," says Mercy Peña-Alevizos, who teaches at Holy Trinity Academy in Phoenix. "I stress the importance of appreciation and eliminating waste. My students understand and have fantastic ideas. We recycle and pick up around our neighborhood."

Environmental service projects can be simple, elaborate or just for fun. Check out the #trashtag challenge on social media, for example.

8. Start or work in a school garden.

Mairs Ryan teaches science at St. Gregory the Great Catholic School in San Diego. "The sixth-graders oversee the school garden, as well as our vermin composting bin, christened the 'Worm Hotel'. The garden is their lab and the students 'live and learn' soil carbon sequestration and regenerative agriculture. Our school's compost bin is evidence that alternatives exist to methane-producing landfills. In looking for more solutions to reduce methane, students debate food reuse practices around the world."

Check out ThePermacultureStudent.com for resources on building school gardens with rainwater capture and compost systems to regenerate the soil. There are local and regional resources such as the Collective School Garden Network in California and Growing Minds in North Carolina, which offer basic plans for a school garden as well as lesson plans that connect gardening to Common Core standards.


Here are some more resources

After the publication of our climate poll story on Monday, we heard from people all over the country with dozens more resources for climate education.

Alliance for Climate Education has a multimedia resource called Our Climate Our Future, plus more resources for educators and several action programs for youth.

The American Association of Geographers has free online professional development resources for teachers.

American Reading Co. sells an English Language Arts curriculum called ARCCore that includes climate change themes.

Biointeractive, created by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has hundreds of free online education resources, including many on education and the environment, and it offers professional development for teachers.

Climate Generation offers professional development for educators nationwide and a youth network in Minnesota.

CLEAN (Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network) has a collection of resources organized in part by the Next Generation Science Standard it is aligned with.

Global Oneness Project offers lesson plans that come with films and videos of climate impacts around the world.

Google offers free online environmental sustainability lesson plans for grades 5-8.

The Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility has a group of 19 lessons for K-12.

"We believe that the social and emotional skills we help strengthen in young people and adults are sorely needed to combat the fear and avoidance we and students experience around climate change," spokesperson Laura McClure told NPR.

The National Center for Science Education has free climate change lessons that focus on combating misinformation. They also have a "scientist in the classroom" program.

The National Science Teachers Association has a comprehensive curriculum.

The Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, N.Y., has a book called the Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change.

Ripple Effect "creates STEM curriculum" for K-6 "about real people and places impacted by climate change," starting with New Orleans.

Ten Strands offers professional learning to educators in California in partnership with the state's recycling authority and an outdoor-education program, among others.

Think Earth offers 9 environmental education units from preschool through middle school.

The Zinn Education Project (based on the work of Howard Zinn, the author of A People's History Of The United States) has launched a group of 18 lessons aimed specifically at climate justice. Some are drawn from this book: A People's Curriculum For The Earth: Teaching Climate Change And The Environmental Crisis.

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