BERLIN, Md.—Fifth grader Aman Shahzad looked closely at the level attached to the plumb line. "Lower, lower," she called out. "OK! The bubble is in the middle." Her classmate, holding the wooden surveyor's pole, read the measurement: 14 centimeters.
The two students were from Pemberton Elementary School in nearby Salisbury, Md., the first to participate in a new, three-month interdisciplinary unit called "Investigating Climate Science" that spans science, math, economics and government. On this spring day on Maryland's eastern shore, they were on a field trip to Assateague Island, measuring the slope of the beach as the first step in a lesson on sea-level rise.
The unit represents the vanguard of a nationwide effort, pushed by education and science groups, to broaden climate change education into a variety of physical and social science classes in public school curricula.
Yet even here, in one the most sophisticated climate change education units in the nation, teachers still feel the need to balance what the world's scientific bodies know about climate change with what is represented in the public dialogue: avoiding terms like "global warming" and including a lesson questioning humanity's impact on the problem.
The three-month unit is designed for middle school and high-achieving elementary students. It was developed by four teachers in the Wicomico County Public Schools' gifted and talented program with help from environmental educator Carrie Samis of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. Lessons focus on climate science and hone critical thinking skills.
- In one lesson, students examined and analyzed editorial cartoons related to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and discussed the advantages and disadvantages of building a pipeline to ferry crude oil from Alberta's tarsands to the United States.
- Another lesson examined the possible causes of changing climates, differentiating between anthropogenic and natural ones. Students studied greenhouse gases, climate indicators, and carbon footprints, then predicted positive and negative effects climate change may have on agriculture, the economy, infrastructure and wildlife.
- The full-day field trip to Assateague Island showed students how vulnerable the barrier island is to sea-level rise. They conducted a mock debate, acting as local stakeholders, on the impacts of salt marsh migration.
- One lesson, called "the controversy," probes "both sides of the story." It examines uncertainties in historic data, fossil records, ice core samples and tree rings, posing the questions, "How do we know?" and "Where is the proof?"
- Several lessons are devoted to developing climate action plans and deciding what – if anything – students should do about climate change.
The diversified approach reaches and engages students via a number of different avenues. Gabe Dunn, a fifth grader at Westside Intermediate School, in Hebron, Md., liked the unit's hands-on science and civics activities, especially debating the viability of land development amid marsh migration and sea-level rise. Cade Stone, a fifth grader at Pemberton Elementary, found the editorial cartoons appealing.
The unit has generated controversy.
Months before the lessons began, parents voiced concern over the contents and stressed a need for "balance." Virtually every scientist studying atmospheric and earth sciences says climate change is real and that humans are the cause. But some parents sought inclusion of opposing theories, such as other causes and doubts that climate change is occurring.
In response, Nancy Rowe, one of four teachers developing the unit, devised lessons to show that climate change is not all caused by humans. "We want to be balanced," Rowe said.