Schools rarely teach climate change outside of science class. Teachers are changing that.
Schools rarely teach climate change outside of science class. Teachers are changing that.

There’s a pretty good chance you remember all of those early, iconic lessons learned in school, from the fetching utility of Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally to the way your mind was quietly blown with the realization that the green light in The Great Gatsby might be more than just something at the end of a dock.

But what’s the likelihood of that early, iconic lesson being about climate change, a looming global catastrophe that will have devastating consequences without radical, immediate (and thus unprecedented) action?

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Somewhat slim, considering that, at present, there’s no unified climate curriculum for K-12 science education in the United States, as Glenn Branch, deputy director at the National Center for Science Education, an organization that advocates for an accurate science education, points out. As Branch explains, this means many students emerge from high school with a hazy — or, maybe even nonexistent — grasp on long-established climate science.

Since lessons on climate change are lacking even within science classes for many schools in the U.S., incorporating climate change into other subjects, like history, economics, and civics, might seem like a lower priority. Education advocates and teachers, like Lin Andrews, the director of teacher support at the National Center for Science Education, and Nancy Metzger-Carter, a sustainability curriculum coordinator for a California high school, however, say there’s a missed opportunity in not incorporating climate change into non-science-related classes— whether they’re in-person classes or being taught online during the pandemic and beyond.

Doing so, Andrews and Metzger-Carter say, can help equip students with the tools to understand concepts pertaining to climate justice, to parse out politically viable solutions for our climate crisis, and to comprehend the history behind climate policy in the U.S. After all, climate change is about as big picture as you can get. Expanding the reach of climate curricula could make these topics more easily incorporated in the places they’d naturally fit, like talking about politically viable solutions to climate change in a government class, or introducing climate justice through the framework of a book in an English class.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Andrews also notes that learning the basics of the scientific process became all the more pressing, as misinformation about the virus and its spread ricocheted around social media. To that end, she developed a series of lesson plans to explain the nature of scientific discovery itself. They focus on explaining historical misconceptions, such as the once prevalent and now long-debunked “miasma theory,” which held that diseases like cholera were caused by poisonous vapors in the air.

“Having that background knowledge is really important to understanding climate science. We’re trying to emphasize science doesn’t have a beginning and an end,” Andrews said. “We’re really emphasizing you have to trust the science.”

With the science behind human-driven climate change long agreed upon by the international science community, educators like Metzger-Carter think that schools have to drastically expand the reach of their climate curricula in order to properly equip a new generation of students with the tools to understand our rapidly warming world. But without a unified curriculum that incorporates climate science into non-science classes (or climate science into science classes, for that matter), individual teachers are often left to find their own methods of effectively doing so. Here’s what’s been working for some of them.

Make use of interdisciplinary classes

Climate activists have long advocated for the recognition of social justice issues alongside calls to preserve our planet’s natural environment. As the climate crisis worsens, and as the window for curbing its most drastic impacts tightens, these calls have only grown more acute and widespread, with prominent politicians, including Joe Biden, acknowledging the link between environmental degradation and calls for social justice.

At schools, Metzger-Carter says there are unique opportunities to clearly illustrate important tenets of climate justice by presenting climate science in non-science classes. In interdisciplinary classes, where students can make connections between different academic fields, teachers can paint a more complete picture of the causes, contributors, and solutions to the climate crisis.

Think about it like this: Learning about the greenhouse effect in a science class will help students understand human-made climate change, as would learning about the lobbying efforts of fossil fuel companies in a government class. But learning about the greenhouse effect and the influence of the energy lobby together can help students make more connections between the economic and political factors driving our warming world, giving them more ways to envision solutions, Metzger-Carter says.

Metzger-Carter, who has been a sustainability coordinator at different schools for 14 years, currently works at Sonoma Academy, a private high school in Santa Rosa, CA, where she introduced a course called “Student Sustainability Leaders.” Because it’s not a traditional academic class like science or history, there’s more flexibility. Metzger-Carter says that there’s plenty of leeway for her, and her students, to connect different topics as they pertain to climate change.

Kate Roney, who graduated from Sonoma Academy in 2020 and was enrolled in the program last year, says that it wasn’t until taking Metzger-Carter’s class that she saw the connection between the social justice issues that had previously piqued her personal interest, and the lessons she learned in science classes about climate change. Sonoma Academy had a mandatory sustainability and environment course for sophomores when Roney was a student (although the program is currently changing based on remote learning), an extreme rarity within the U.S. education system. Still, Roney had yet to get an opportunity in the classroom to see the issues so directly linked.

“Up until that point, I only understood, like, there are greenhouse gases, human activity is increasing them, and that’s bad for the polar bears. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s sad for the polar bears,'” Roney said. “But the climate crisis obviously isn’t just hurting polar bears. We read books like Drawdown [about substantive solutions to climate change], and we started learning about all the intersectional issues that arise.”

The connections offered in the class gave Roney a template for continuing to link these issues, which proved an illuminating experience for her.

“[The class] opened up more and more for me, because it was then that I understood how this was going to hurt people of color, women, youth, and low-income people,” Roney said. “I’m a people person, and that was what got me going. Because in hundreds of years, the planet will probably be fine. It will heal, eventually. It’s the people that I want to save.”

After taking the class, she started incorporating climate change into projects for her other classes, like doing an economics paper on how economic systems worldwide will need to grapple with the climate crisis.

“Once you start doing it more, it becomes second nature,” Roney said.

Metzger-Carter started teaching another course in August, called “Civic Engagement, Social Movements, and Climate Change,” which feels all the more urgent during the pandemic. In it, students learn the nuts and bolts of different social movements to apply their learnings to the climate movement.

She’s found that students are entering the class with a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of social issues due to recent Black Lives Matter protests and the outsized impact of the pandemic on Black and Latinx Americans.

In Northern California, where the school is located, Metzger-Carter said images of farmworkers continuing to work amid the massive wildfires ravaging the region have particularly “driven home the disproportionate impact of climate change on people of color,” for her students. Her students also saw how farmworkers, many of whom are Latinx, lacked access to N-95 masks amid the wildfires due to pandemic-related shortages, thus exposing them to smoke. For them, it was yet another example of the pandemic’s disproportionate effect on Latinx individuals.

“It’s something I’ve less explicitly had to unpack this year,” Metzger-Carter said of climate and racial justice. “[The pandemic] really uncovered that.”

Provide emotional support

While the benefits of interdisciplinary learning might provide similar outcomes for different students, Andrews, Metzger-Carter, and Tracy Curtin, a third-grade teacher in the Boston Public School System who developed a climate change unit for her research-based writing class, maintain that it’s absolutely crucial to consider the differing emotional states of students when teaching about climate change. That’s something non-science classes can be particularly suited to do.

For example: To sit a 9-year-old on a rug and bombard them with scientific information will likely overwhelm them, Curtin notes. But linking climate science with other subjects can help to ensure that students understand age-accessible forms of climate action throughout the learning process. That, Andrews and Metzger-Carter say, is one of the most effective ways to counter a sense of helplessness about the climate crisis.

Curtin learned firsthand how specific lessons could impact young students’ emotional states in different ways.

When she explained the dire state of our planet’s coral reefs in a science-oriented lesson within her writing class, Curtin had some students in her third-grade class break down crying. As they learned about forms of action, though, like how to write letters to senators, other students were fired up and ready to go, suggesting that their fellow third-graders organize a protest like the ones they had learned about in another action-oriented lesson that focused on the climate strikes that occurred around the world in September of 2019.

“[My students] felt that sadness, and then they moved through it [with the lessons], so now they still really want to learn about what they can do. It’s really important to make sure you’re educating, and not just scaring kids,” Curtin said. “You need to go through the facts with a third-grade teacher lens, making sure that the ultimate message is about taking action, and is hopeful, while also being scientifically accurate.”

Help students take action

Explaining to students that there’s a wide host of actions to take in order to combat the worst threats posed by climate change can assuage feelings of hopelessness for 10-year-olds and high school seniors alike. That’s a good thing, but then comes another piece of the puzzle: Helping them actually take action.

Entry points are going to vary. Students already well-versed in both climate science and advocacy or leadership roles might be ready to go right to the school board to demand increased climate action, Metzger-Carter says, while students who are new to both might do better helping out on a smaller project, like starting a compost system in the cafeteria, or helping maintain a community garden.

In her school-spanning tenure as a sustainability coordinator, Metzger-Carter found that it helped to scale up: Rather than immediately plopping students into situations that they’re completely unfamiliar with, it might be useful to empower them on a smaller scale, first in class through lessons about solutions, and then in actions like the ones mentioned above.

Here’s what it looked like for her own students: First, they focused on projects that could improve their school’s carbon footprint, water usage, and waste management. They did a cost-benefit analysis of different options, drafted a proposal, and then presented it to their school’s board. Months later, it was approved. From there, they started to advocate for other school boards, student councils, school environmental clubs, and PTAs to pass similar resolutions. Now, students in her class help to power Schools for Climate Action, an advocacy group that works to incorporate climate science lessons into more schools.

Metzger-Carter advocates for getting all interested students equipped with the skills necessary to take far-reaching and immediate action. This can start at an individual school, but Metzger-Carter stresses that actions taken by students need to cast a much, much wider net to foster the kind of structural change necessary to combat climate change. Preparing students for advocacy projects, she says, can help empower them to keep taking action once out of school.

Keep it nonpartisan

When engaging in advocacy of this kind at school, Andrews, Metzger-Carter, and Metzger-Carter’s former student Roney trumpet the same nonpartisan message: Let the science talk.

Even though scientists have longed agreed on the science behind the climate crisis, it is still sometimes framed as a partisan political issue, Andrews, from the National Center for Science Education, notes. She worries that if those making decisions about a school’s curriculum interpret climate change as an issue too heavily politicized to teach in school, it might be difficult to get a wider curriculum including climate change into the school. Perhaps even more nefariously, Andrews notes, there could be parents, or other outside groups, that flatly deny widely agreed upon climate science.

Educators like Metzger-Carter are well-aware of this potential threat, and have prepared their lessons accordingly.

“It’s really important that I stay nonpartisan as an educator. We advocate based on science,” Metzger-Carter said. “You can’t dispute science. That’s the bedrock of how I educate.”

For the country’s current generation of youth, Metzger-Carter observes that runs so rampant that some of her students understandably find it difficult to concentrate on much of anything else — which makes it ever more important to address climate change holistically, without interference from partisan bickering.

“[Students in my class] talk about the anxiety they feel, and they talk about the futility of taking other classes,” Metzger-Carter said. “They have so much anxiety about the future that sometimes it’s hard for them to put their finger on all of the things worrying them.”

What students really want, she says, is to get a sound education that acknowledges the urgency of the climate crisis, while helping to empower them to take action.

“They just want to be told the truth. They want to acknowledge that they’re angry,” Metzger-Carter said. “So, I tell them the truth. I tell them that their voices are way more powerful than mine. Then, I step out of the way.”