Teaching Climate Change Science in the Classroom

26:19 minutes

According to a study in the journal Science that surveyed 1,500 public science teachers across the country, “30 percent of those teachers emphasize that recent global warming ‘is likely due to natural causes,’ and 12 percent do not emphasize human causes.” Is climate science education lagging in schools? How does the social controversy play into how we teach the science? A panel of education experts discusses the challenges and approaches to teaching climate change science in the classroom.  

Segment Guests

Elizabeth Walsh

Elizabeth Walsh is an assistant professor in the departments of Meteorology & Climate Science and Science Education at San Jose State University in San Jose, California.

Mike Town

Mike Town is a science teacher at the Tesla STEM High School in Redmond, Washington.

Nicole Colston

Nicole Colston is an NSF SEES Fellow in the Geography Department of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: You know 97%, as we’ve been talking about, of climate scientists agree that humans are causing climate change. But how does that climate consensus play out when it comes to our schools? A recent study out in the journal Science found that 30% of surveyed teachers emphasized that natural causes are likely responsible. 12% didn’t discuss any causes at all in their classrooms.

So how are teachers approaching climate change science in the classroom? What are some of the challenges? That’s what we’re going to be talking about for the rest of the hour. We want to hear from you. Our number, 844-724-8255. You can also tweet @SciFri.

Mike Town is a science teacher at Tesla Stem High School in Redmond, Washington. Elizabeth Walsh, an assistant professor in meteorology and climate change and science education at San Jose State University. Welcome to Science Friday.

ELIZABETH WALSH: Thank you very much for having me.


IRA FLATOW: Let me begin by talking about– you studied– Elizabeth, you studied climate change as an oceanographer and now you work with teachers to get the science to them. Were you surprised by the results of the science survey?

ELIZABETH WALSH: You know, I was not surprised at all. This is exactly what I would expect to see based off of what we know about what the general public thinks and based off of what I know from working with teachers in schools.

IRA FLATOW: Why do you think there’s such a lag in what teacher knowledge is when it comes to climate change science?

ELIZABETH WALSH: I think there’s a lot of different factors in play here. First and foremost, there’s a lag in how the general public is thinking about climate change. It isn’t what scientists are thinking, necessarily. And ultimately, teachers are people. They learn in many of the same ways that we learn, maybe with more professional development. And many teachers did not have a climate change course at all in their careers. You wouldn’t have taken it in college, necessarily. So they are having to learn this outside of a school environment. So I think that could be a source of some of the confusion and some of the– perhaps a lack of confidence when it comes to teaching climate change in the classroom.

IRA FLATOW: Mike, do you agree? Do you think there is a gap in the knowledge, and those reasons that Elizabeth outlined there?

MIKE TOWN: Yeah. Yeah. It’s always been a problem in regards that, when we bring in some new content to the teaching profession, because a lot of teachers, of course, have been in the profession for decades in some cases. And so there needs to be some professional development in order for them to get up to speed.

Climate change is continuously changing, so the ongoing need for professional development is really critical. I think one of the issues– and I do agree with [INAUDIBLE] in regards to the– it wasn’t that surprising to see this study, although I’m really glad this study was done. But, you know, there needs to be a home for climate change education in our public schools, especially at the high school level, and the closest fit tends to be in biology classes.

In biology it’s such a diverse subject and there’s so much change going on in that course as well that, if you fit climate change into an ecology unit per se, you’re really looking at one or two days of instruction. And for a lot of teachers who are very much concerned about their students passing the test, it’s easy to kind of buy yourself some extra time of instruction by not even addressing climate change.

IRA FLATOW: But, you know, there’s so much climate change news out there in the mainstream, good or bad. And don’t the students come in and ask, Mike, about what they’re hearing? Either they’re getting asked questions in the presidential election, they’re hearing it on the news. Just as we talked about Florida here, they were seeing pictures of the water lapping up.

MIKE TOWN: Right. Well, in my particular case, I teach in a public lottery based stem school, and so all of our students take AP Environmental Science as sophomores, so all the 150 students in the sophomore class. Now, AP Environmental Science is one of the few places where there really is a legitimate home for climate change education. So about 20% percent or so of the test is going to be based on that. And what I find is that– and then we also teach a course in the University of Washington, dual credited course– so our students get University of Washington credits– in, actually, global warming. And before that it was the science of climate change, and we teach also solutions in environmental engineering.

But what I feel is that, as soon as we start talking about climate change, then the students start asking questions about it. So, you know, you have to kind of begin that process. And then the– I see more of a concern about what climate change means in their lives than I do in terms of what the politicians or the lobbyists are saying about climate change.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking about teaching climate change with Mike Town and Elizabeth Walsh. Let me see if I can get a quick question in before we go to the break. Let’s go to Mac in Jacksonville, Florida. Hi, Mac.

MAC: Hello. I was just trying to point out the fact that it’s difficult that we still have that 30% percent of teachers that do not want to accept climate change, or they think it’s just too political to even talk about in the classroom. And I go to a private Catholic school where even the pope talked around Congress to even say and point out how climate changes is affecting the world. And yet still– still nobody wants to agree with it. I just don’t get it.

IRA FLATOW: Are you saying, in school no one wants to agree with it? Or among people in–

MAC: So, in my civics class I pointed out how we have an entire political party– the Republican Party– who does not agree that climate change is human-caused, or some other factors, or it just can’t be done to be changed or stopped. And so my question is, how do we somehow, even though we’ve already had this consensus, that we push across that everybody should know this, every educator should know this, and they shouldn’t be holding it to, like, some personal, political viewpoint. It shouldn’t be political. It should be scientific. And no one wants to look at it like that.

IRA FLATOW: Good. Thanks. That’s an interesting call. Thanks for calling. Mike, can you take the politics out of it when you teach it?

MIKE TOWN: Well, you know, I think the short answer– and it was an excellent question– is that we have new standards now, the Next Generation Science Standards. And, you know, the states are slowly adopting them. We’re somewhere, I think, in the high teens. And in those standards there now is a requirement of climate change education, which– and many other states will follow through on their tests. And so that’s going to start somewhat more of a discussion in regards to that.

In terms of addressing the politics of climate change in science classes, I think that that’s an adequate– I mean, I think that’s something that, in a class like AP Environmental Science, where you have the additional time to do that, I think that’s very much fair game. I think it’s important that the students understand that the solutions to climate change generally tend to be policy dictated. And so discussing certain policy ramifications that would lead to reducing the carbon footprints of countries or even the United Nations climate conference gives students hope about their future. And I think that’s really, really important because the doom and gloom scenario is just overwhelming.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Use the politics as teaching moments and talk about how they’re affected. We’re going to take– I’ll get right back to you after this break because we have to pay some bills. We’re going to take a quick break. We’ll be right back. Talking with Mike Town, science teacher at Tesla Stem High School in Redmond, Elizabeth Walsh who is a professor at San Jose State University, and your calls. Our phone number, 844-724-8255. If you’re a student or teacher you can also tweet us @SciFri. Stay with us. We’ll be right back and talk about science education and climate change right after this break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about teaching climate change in the classroom to middle age and high school students. And if you want to talk about grade school, we’re happy to talk about that also. My guests are Elizabeth Walsh, she’s an assistant professor of meteorology and climate science and science education at San Jose State University, Mike Town, science teacher at Tesla Stem High School in Redmond, Washington, and we are eager to hear your thoughts on this. 844-724-8255. 844-SCITALK. Also, you can tweet us @SciFri. And as I usually do, rudely interrupt my guests when there is a great point being made. We were talking about using the politics of this as a teaching moment to describe the interaction of politics and science and how the two can bump heads against each other at times. And then, Elizabeth, you wanted to jump in there with a comment.

ELIZABETH WALSH: Yeah, I did. I wanted to respond to the caller’s frustration about why has it taken so long for some of the social conversations to catch up to where the scientists are, and what is the role of politics in all of this. And just to make the point that, you know, unfortunately, if it was as easy as just giving the scientific evidence and data to people and having that be this game-changing moment where suddenly everyone accepts climate change, we would have done that already.

But we know that that’s not the case. And that really has to do with how people learn about science, because how we learn about science is much more complex than just looking at evidence and facts. It has to do with how we make sense of the world around us in the light of new information. And so anytime you go to understand something new, it depends on your past experience with it. And for a lot of people you belong to social groups or community groups, political groups that are a strong part of your identity and who you are as a person, and if you start to try to make sense of climate science in a way that goes against what some of the values or the norms of those groups are, then you find yourself in conflict. And I think that, because it is that more complicated process of having the scientific evidence come into tension with some of these social values, community values, and ways that we see ourselves as people, that is part of what’s making this such a slow and difficult process.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. That’s a great cue for me to bring in my next guest, who surveyed teachers in Oklahoma, the state where its Republican Senator James Inhofe called human-induced climate change, quote, “the greatest hoax ever perpetuated against the American public.” Nicole Colston is the National Science Foundation SEES fellow in the geography department at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Welcome to Science Friday.

NICOLE COLSTON: Hi. Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Oklahoma has not adopted this Next Generation Science Standards that Mike was talking about. How does the state address teaching climate change?

NICOLE COLSTON: In fact, the state went through a science education standard reform a couple years ago where they didn’t adopt the NGSS standards on face, but adopted them– or copied and pasted them, essentially, took a good chunk of them, but deliberately removed or emitted terms related to evolution and climate change. And that had a lot to do with our State Legislature’s role in approving those state standards after the Oklahoma State Department of Education puts them forward. So as it stands, the terms themselves are omitted from our academic standards.

IRA FLATOW: They’re– the terms itself?

NICOLE COLSTON: Yes. So if you were to look at our standards, they look a lot like the NGSS, but they don’t include those terms, “evolution” or “climate change.” And this is part of a larger problem in this state where we’ve been battling anti-science education movements who have traditionally focused on evolution, and introducing religious-based interpretations into the classroom. But in the last few years, as I’ve spoke to some of my colleagues at the Oklahomans for Excellence in Science, started to notice that the terms “climate change” were also introduced in those bills. So you see a real coupling of the two seemingly-different topics behind some momentum related to religious conservatives’ social politics.

IRA FLATOW: So did teachers then still have to tiptoe around it, but get it in?

NICOLE COLSTON: Yeah. I mean, that’s what I was interested in finding out. And in fact, many science teachers that I interviewed found that climate change was an important topic that they wanted their students to know about, and were spending some time teaching it. They instead had to find ways to negotiate around that. And so one strategy was that the public school districts, the urban school district coordinators, so these science educators who coordinate large groups of teachers, decided to include those terms in their curriculum. Other teachers do an interesting strategy of presenting both sides, and that generally is frowned upon in science education, but in further investigation you kind of found out that, by teaching the controversy about climate change, they were able to neutralize the controversy about teaching it in the classroom.


NICOLE COLSTON: So it was a form of resistance to that.

IRA FLATOW: I was thinking, you know, that is an interesting concept, if you use it as a teaching moment to talk about politics and science.


IRA FLATOW: And how politics can influence how science is carried out or even taught.

NICOLE COLSTON: Yep. Another important point I would just add out is that, while teachers here in Oklahoma have been facing push back in the classroom from administrators and teachers and parents, fellow teachers and students for a long time about evolution, I didn’t find that to be true– they didn’t find that to be true about climate change. So that’s good news. It’s good news that Oklahoma teachers are embracing the topic and finding ways to get it into their classroom.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. Mike, how do you feel about teaching, quote-unquote, “teaching the controversy” I guess that has been ported over from evolution now into climate change?

MIKE TOWN: Well, I think that, when we talk about the controversy, the controversy is also changing as the sound bites have changed over the last few years. So we used to hear a lot, you know, occasionally a student would say, well, what about natural cycles or what about astronomical cycles? But on the political side, you know, those types of sound bites have kind of lessened.

And now it’s kind of more along, if you watch the debates, about the costs of dealing with climate change or being a drag on the economy or jobs. And so those are economic questions. They’re valuable questions. They’re important to address those. We can talk about renewable energies versus fossil fuel-based energies, and there’s pluses and minuses about them which is really good.

But as far as teaching the controversy, I think that if someone were to, say in a class, well, there’s some people that– or, some politicians who have suggested that sunspot cycles lead to climate change and this is why that’s not true, I think that’s a good way of being able to do that rather than not teaching about what the sunspot cycle is, rather than just leaving that go unanswered.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let me go to the phones. A lot of people checking in. Let’s go to Lafayette, Indiana, and Adam in Lafayette, Indiana. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

ADAM: Hi. Thank you for having me. I just wanted to touch upon, briefly, from what I’ve seen as an educator, when we’re in a classroom it is very political as far as touching upon those sensitive types of topics. And that I think that we’ve been delayed, as educators, being taught ourselves because there’s been– I think, especially with Exxon where we’ve found out now how they’ve tried to insert evidence that would put a worry on teachers that we may be called out on evidence.

And I just wanted to see what the panel had to hear about that, where that might be the delay in how quickly educators are addressing putting this into the curriculum and being confident that they can be up there, talk about this, and be supported then by their school boards and by their administrators and by the parents around them.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re saying that teachers are fearful of getting into trouble?

ADAM: Well, I don’t know if they’re necessarily fearful of getting into trouble, but it’s– you’ve got to feel very, very confident about your material. And I know, when I was taught, that you had to really be sure. And I didn’t even get into– I’m glad that you guys talked about evolution. It’s the same thing there. I also feel that where our own personal religious faiths, and especially maybe with some of the Christian religions, we haven’t been dealing with our relationship with the environment as much as we have, I think, now recently.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Let me get– Mike, I hear you trying to jump in here.

MIKE TOWN: Yeah. You know, I mean, that’s a really, really good point that the caller just made. And I think it goes back and is reinforced in the survey results, that individual teachers have to feel confident in their ability to teach a particular subject in order to spend a fair amount of time on it. If teachers have not received much education in climate change and if their textbook doesn’t address climate change, then there’s a lack of confidence that will lead to teachers kind of glossing over the issue or moving on to the next part of the issue as soon as they can. So this concept of professional development for teachers in climate change really, is really important.

NICOLE COLSTON: I agree. The teachers I interviewed are left on their own to discover those materials and often turning to popular media as a source of that material. I’d also point out that I think that teachers have different understandings about why there is a public controversy. And so sometimes they recognize it as a manufactured debate by self-interested parties, but other times the controversy itself in the public media leads them to believe that there is scientific debate. And certainly, there is.

I think this goes back to what Mike was saying about how we teach about the controversy in the classroom. And we might not, say, set up a debate that’s global warming is happening or no it’s not happening, but instead maybe what are some of the possible solutions or how do we know about the predictive models? How do they work? And so, in this case, I think it’s important to realize that maybe what the caller is talking to is that the teachers don’t feel confident because they perceive the controversy sometimes to be a legitimate one. And they lack the information that they need. Their professional development is very important.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Brian in Anchorage, Alaska. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN: Yeah, hi, Ira. Thanks for taking my call. So one other issue that the previous caller touched on is the issue of challenging interactions perhaps with parents and administrators. I think those are conversations that I would like to avoid, anyway, as an educator myself. And I think that inhibits a lot of teachers from touching the subject. The main point I wanted to make, though, is that, as we’re teaching– and I hope there are many teachers out here listening– we need to be really sensitive to the students’ affect and emotions.

The deeper you get into understanding climate change, the– well, the future projections are painted in shades of charcoal and pitch, and it’s challenging for students to bear that weight. And I found in my teaching that it’s important to give the students due with their understanding because some sense of taking action tends to be an antidote to despair. So I don’t assign them anything specific to do, but I give them options, basically anything that aligns with their values that connects what they now know about the topic with what they think should happen.

IRA FLATOW: Let me just interrupt. I have to interrupt for a second and say, I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. And is that sort of also hope? Is that another word for hope, something to do? Because if you hear that in maybe your lifetime, you know, the tundra is melting in Alaska.

BRIAN: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: And things are sinking, you don’t want to grow up in that world.

BRIAN: Yeah. I think it is related. In my experience hope doesn’t come from wishing it were so, but from working to make it happen. And so even though the future is pretty grim, the students can work to make a real difference based on what they value and what they think needs to happen.

IRA FLATOW: All right.

BRIAN: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. That’s a good thought. I have to leave it there. Elizabeth, did you have something you want to jump in with?

ELIZABETH WALSH: Yeah. I have two thoughts. The first is talking about these challenging interactions that you can have in the classroom, and I just want to give an anecdote from one study that we did where we went into a classroom and we opened with, what have you– the teacher opened with, what have you heard about climate change? And before he had even finished the question almost, one of the students said, Democrats. And we went from there.

The school was so politically charged and the students loved the political aspects of this, but there were a lot of students in there who were Republican, identified as conservative Republicans who didn’t think that climate change was happening, and they would challenge the evidence. And it was three of us in there– two researchers and a teacher– and we were there to support the teacher in fielding a lot of these questions. But it required a pretty deep expertise about climate change in order to help resolve some of the tensions that came up, and actually it was a really productive, wonderful experience. And several of those students actually changed their mind and became advocates for taking action on climate change, which was wonderful.

But it can be a scary place, as a teacher, to be in that role. So I just wanted to acknowledge that and agree that we need more support. And I think it’s a great point that the caller made about hope and having agency to do something about climate change. In fact, here at San Jose State we have a project called the Green Ninja Project, which is a climate action superhero. And we’re developing curriculum to have students developing films and videos to take on this role as agents of change in their community to actually take action on climate change. So that’s just one example. But framing this in that way, I think, can be very powerful for students.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we have a project coming up for teachers on Tuesday, April 5th. We have a live online discussion with experienced climate educators, and we’re going to talk about strategies for bringing climate science into your classroom. So you can sign up and participate at sciencefriday.com/climateclassroom. That’s Tuesday, April 5th, sciencefriday.com/climateclassroom if you want to know more about how you can teach climate change and you need some help in your classroom.

Thank you all for joining us today. Elizabeth Walsh from San Jose State, Mike Town at Stem High School in– Tesla Stem High School in Richmond Washington, Nicole Colston at the Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Thank you all for taking the time to talk about this.


ELIZABETH WALSH: Thank you very much.

MIKE TOWN: Thanks.

IRA FLATOW: Very important topic.

Copyright © 2016 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of ScienceFriday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies.

Meet the Producer

About Alexa Lim

Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.