"They tell us they need resources to teach 'both sides' of climate change well," said Susan Buhr, who runs teacher workshops as director of the education and outreach program of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science at the University of Colorado.
"From our perspective, there aren't 'both sides,'" she added. "There is the scientifically credible side, and then there is the misrepresentation side in the public dialogue."
But other regions and states, including some with conservative-leaning politics such as West Virginia, have strong standards for earth science, said Mark McCaffrey, program director of the National Center for Science Education, which has long defended the teaching of evolution in public schools and earlier this year announced it would start doing the same for climate science. California and Massachusetts are among states viewed as progressive in climate science because they integrate climate literacy principles into the state standards.
In a California ninth grade ecology unit within biology class, for example, students might examine a 100-year survey of the state’s wildlife population to illustrate the impact climate change is having on animals today.
In Victoria Matthew’s biology class in Baltimore, students examined global ocean water temperatures and coral bleaching, and how that relates to climate change. A hands-on activity included an oyster dissection, and Matthew discussed how climate change is expected to impact oyster populations in Chesapeake Bay.
Efforts are underway to expand curriculum in classrooms. Among the most promising is an initiative underway in Maryland and Delaware, one of 15 test cases funded by the National Science Foundation to research ways to improve climate education [Sidebar: Joint science effort pushes climate education in Maryland and Delaware].
The test program encourages scientists and educators to work together to address local impacts – sea-level rise in the Chesapeake Bay, or rising temperatures in urban areas – and develop lessons that could apply elsewhere in the curriculum, said the study's principal investigator Donald Boesch, of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
Most information for educators focuses on global climate change, but Boesch said greater learning takes place when climate impacts are examined at the local level.
Similar climate education research programs focused on local impacts are being developed for Great Lakes and southeastern states.
But there is a larger goal here, educators say.
On May 11, the National Research Council, in coordination with the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Achieve released the draft Next Generation Science Standards, laying out key scientific ideas and practices all students should learn by the end of high school. Replacing standards issued more than a decade ago, the framework aims to connect knowledge from various disciplines into a "coherent and scientifically based" world view. Climate change factors highly in the effort, which emphasizes earth and space content as well as cross-cutting themes such as modeling, systems behavior, and uncertainty.
Educators say the push to improve the quality of climate change education would directly affect the 26 states that have partnered to develop the standards and could ripple through the entire educational system. Climate change, in effect, has become the poster child for what the National Academy of Sciences hopes to accomplish with science education.
"If we can get the standards ... climate-rich, then that's going to have a domino effect in getting into state standards, and getting into textbooks and curricula," said Karsten at the National Science Foundation.