BALTIMORE—Ninth grade science at the Academy for Career and College Education began the usual way last fall. Victoria Matthew's students learned the difference between biotic and abiotic characteristics, then progressed to the basics of scientific method. By Thanksgiving, they were ready for climate change. That's when Matthew braced herself.
"Initially, I thought I was going to get a lot of pushback from the kids, said Matthew, a teacher at the inner-city charter school for grades six through 12. "But I didn't encounter any. I was surprised."
Like teaching evolution, efforts to improve climate science lessons have opened rifts in classrooms and school districts across the United States. Parents have pressured teachers not to teach the subject. Teachers have watered down the science. Special interests – from the Heartland Institute on the right to Facing the Future on the left – have vied to influence curriculum. Some states and districts have ignored the topic altogether. Others insist on a "balanced" debate that pits a small minority of scientists who deny human-driven climate change against the findings of nearly all earth and atmospheric scientists.
But the landscape is changing rapidly and profoundly in public schools.
Earlier this month, the education-based nonprofit Achieve, Inc. released draft "next generation science standards" for elementary, middle- and high-school classrooms. Developed from recommendations by the National Research Council, the standards represent the first comprehensive revision of U.S. science curricula in 15 years. They highlight "cross-cutting" concepts that touch various disciplines, giving students a "cumulative, coherent and usable understanding" of science and engineering. Climate change plays a key role.
Groups are stepping forward to buttress climate science in schools, pushing to ensure the topic is well-represented in new national science standards. Science and education leaders are seeking ways to broaden climate science from a narrow unit of earth science curriculum into an interdisciplinary subject taught across a variety of physical and social science classes.
The hope is that, if educators can effectively teach the nuance and complexity of climate change, the gains would bolster larger efforts to improve science education overall, aiding literacy and critical thinking.
“The reality of climate change is that it’s utterly interdisciplinary,” said Frank Niepold, climate education coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Effective climate change education ... has to have strong earth science, biology and physics components, and it has to connect to social science, history, psychology, and economics. It has to answer 'How did we get into this pickle?'"
Two problems with climate change make it a subject teachers are loath to teach: Climate change is complex – touching on economic, social, political and scientific issues to a far greater degree than most other science topics. And climate change politics put teachers square in the middle of an ideological battle.
Climate science is now taught in many districts in the earth science curriculum, mostly in middle school grades. Left there, it's doomed for failure, Niepold said. As students advance to high school, core science becomes specialized, displacing interdisciplinary, predominantly earth science-based concepts like climate change.
Statistics show that 83 percent of U.S. high school students take biology, 50 percent take chemistry, 20 percent take physics, and just 20 percent take earth science courses, said Niepold. "Even if the earth science classes were amazingly effective, we're only reaching 20 percent of all high school students."
More troubling, earth science is frequently reserved for kids not destined for college, said Niepold. Many college-bound high school students are fast-tracked through biology, chemistry, physics, and advanced placement science classes, skipping the topic. As a result, college-bound seniors can emerge from high school without much exposure to climate science.