Rolling your eyes at climate change education

I recently had an eye-opening experience at work at the National Museum of Natural History. A couple of colleagues and I went into the exhibit halls to ask groups of teens about what they would find interesting to learn more about in a museum. We had a number of preselected topics and we selected a few for each group or individual we spoke with. When asked about climate change, one group responded “Climate change?  That again?” with a roll of the eyes. “We’ve been learning about climate change as long as I can remember.”

This is not to say they did not care about climate change — in fact, they did care a great deal.  This group simply seemed to have experienced too much climate change education, and it got me wondering how many other students out there have lost interest in climate change, and why.

I later asked some of my teenage relatives, receiving a similar response. One began learning about it in third grade, with interest. Then three years later he began losing interest, perhaps because it was overkill and perhaps because his interests seemed to move on as he got older.

Is there too much climate change education? How much climate change education is there in schools, anyway? Are kids sick of learning about global warming, increased super storms, and melting glaciers?  More importantly, is there more quantity than quality in climate change education? Do kids see it as a “school topic” rather than a global crisis?

We found the museum visitors’ responses surprising and enlightening. As we did their response to our next question: “What will Earth be like in 100 years?”  Their response: “Yeah, that sounds pretty interesting.”

Fascinating.  Just this little change in perspective seems to make a big difference.  And it got me thinking…

How much is out there about climate change?

Before I continue, let me be clear that I have no problems at all with climate change education, and none at all with the lessons I mention below.

Peterborough (United Kingdom) has its own climate change game designed and made by Peterborough City Council and students at Hampton College.

It seems as though there exists a lesson plan for climate change for every age group from kindergarten through college. And outside of school curriculum the topic is covered by non-profits (Alliance for Climate Education), universities, government institutions (NASANOAAFREE), and more. I was easily able to find lesson activities for grades 6-8 and 9-12 at the University of Madison, Wisconsin’s online Water Library No sooner did I find Climate Change Education, a web portal that collects curriculum resources.

In 2010 the National Science Foundation announced the launch of a climate change education partnership with schools, universities, zoos and aquariums, and other institutions across the country.

As far as state science curricula, I first went to look in California, who I thought would surely have some mention of climate change in its curriculum.  Well, the science frameworks for grades does not mention “climate change.”  For grades 9-12 the framework states:

  1. Students know how computer models are used to predict the effects of the increase in greenhouse gases on climate for the planet as a whole and for specific regions”
  2. “Human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels, is increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This buildup can potentially cause a significant increase in global temperatures and affect global and regional weather patterns.”
  3. “The greenhouse effect is important to Earth’s climate because without that effect the planet would be much colder and more like Mars. But if the concentration of absorbing gases is too high, trapping too much heat in the atmosphere, excessive heating could occur on Earth, producing global warming and a climate closer to that of Venus.”

I found no mention of climate change for grades K-8, which I found surprising.

I then went to check out Tennessee because I had come across a report that describes how the state will allow teachers to “teach the controversy” about evolution and climate change.  But, all things considered, I found more than I expected when I read Tennessee’s environmental science curriculum for grades 9-12.

  1. “Describe how gases in the atmosphere affect climate.”
  2. “Explain how human activity is related to ozone depletion and climate change.”

In K-8 however, there was no mention of the word “greenhouse”, and the only mention of “climate” was “The earth is surrounded by an active atmosphere and an energy system that controls the distribution life, local weather, climate, and global temperature.

It doesn’t seem like there is too much climate change education happening in Tennessee or California.  I would say too little.

In Maryland, only grade 8 environmental education covers climate change.

Interestingly, when I looked in Maryland, there was a direct mention for grade 8 environmental science in humans affecting climate change and other natural cycles.  But I couldn’t find any mention for grades 9-12.

At this point it seems as though there is very little, in my opinion climate change education happening.  However, the National Research Council has put together a framework for K-12 science education.  The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) will be using this framework as states develop new science standards.

Grade levels aren’t broken down grade-by-grade, but “by the end of grade 2, 5, 8 and 12”.  This framework is much more explicit in emphasizing climate change.  When it comes down to climate change (pages 196-198), grade 2 does not cover the topic, though grades 5, 8 and 12 progressively get more involved, from conceptual to models.  (I intentionally did not quote their text because it gets a bit long.)

A new concern

Did you notice it?

There is a lot of climate change educational resources out there between non-profits, government agencies, even camps, museums and aquariums for all age levels.  Probably more so than a teacher can fit into his or her classroom every year, for every grade.  Even in the states’ educational frameworks climate change is mentioned only briefly.  With the little mention of climate change in school frameworks, why are students becoming burnt out on climate change?  Maybe I missed something, but there are possibilities.  Climate change could be the “example” given in classrooms about some math problem or writing topic.  Maybe it’s just that the topic is covered so much more in informal environments than in formal learning environments.

Has anyone else talked with students who aren’t interested in climate change anymore?  And how much climate change education is enough before becoming too much?

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

I am a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I earned a bachelors degree in biophysics from Penn State then moved to California and earned a Ph.D. from CalTech (working for a time at UCSF and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic). I was a Muscular Dystrophy Association post-doctoral fellow at University College London and the Rockefeller University before moving to Boulder. My research has involved a number of topics, including neurotransmitter receptor structure, cytoskeletal organization and ciliary function, neural crest formation, and signaling systems in the context of the clawed frog Xenopus laevis as well as biology education research, leading to the development of the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI), a suite of virtuallaboratory activities, and biofundamentals, a re-designed introductory molecular biology course. I have a close collaboration with Melanie Cooper (@Michigan State) that has resulted in transformed (and demonstrably effective and engaging) course materials in general and organic chemistry known as CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything. I was in the first class of Pew Biomedical Scholars and am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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