Nina Corley, a science teacher at O’Connell College Preparatory School in Galveston, Texas, often avoids using the term “climate change” in her classroom.
Corley, who has been a teacher for nearly 30 years, said that under the Trump administration she has experienced a lot more pushback than usual from parents and students who dispute that humans are causing warming.
“I like to teach the science behind it without actually using those words,” Corley said.
Texas is among 10 states that haven’t adopted new science education standards, meaning schools in the Lone Star State are not formally required to teach about climate change—even as scientific reports increasingly warn of the risks of a warming planet. Climate education is left to the discretion of teachers like Corley and individual school districts.
But more and more states are turning to the Next Generation Science Standards, a set of expectations about what students should know and be able to do in science. These standards, which were introduced in 2013, explicitly include climate change in the science curriculum.
So far, 19 states and Washington, D.C., have adopted NGSS, while 21 states have developed similar standards based on “A Framework for K-12 Science Education." Both NGSS and the framework require the teaching of climate change but differ slightly in the language they use and the topics they emphasize.
Under NGSS, middle and high school students are expected to learn about how human activities—such as the burning of fossil fuels—contribute to global warming. They are also required to learn the various alternative technologies that produce less pollution and waste and consequently mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Prior to the adoption of NGSS in 2013, states lacked a set of performance expectations that “integrate practices, core ideas and crosscutting concepts” such as climate change, accordingto the National Science Teachers Association. There was a wide disparity among what students were learning since climate change education was limited and fragmented across the country.
Frank Niepold, climate education program manager at NOAA, said that before 2013, only 1 percent of the science content in schools was related to climate change, which was “probably poorly taught.” That percentage rose to more than 30 percent once the new standards were put in place.
“That is a massive improvement,” Niepold said.
He said, though, that there is still a long way to go.
Aside from Texas, the other states that haven’t adopted the new standards or the framework are Alaska, Florida, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
In at least one of those states, there’s an effort to make it easier to teach that humans aren’t the primary driver of climate change.
Florida Republican state Sen. Dennis Baxley introduced a bill that would allow schools to teach alternative concepts from what he deems "controversial theories," such as evolution and human-induced climate change, the Miami Herald reported last week.
Lennie Jarratt, project manager for education policy at the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank that in 2017 shipped copies of the book “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” to more than 300,000 teachers, said teaching kids about human-caused warming makes a mockery of the scientific method.
“Biasing science instruction by telling students that climate change is due primarily to human activity predetermines the outcome and violates the scientific method,” Jarratt wrote in an email.
He added that the new national science standards teach students climate alarmism rather than the science, preventing students from learning how to discern facts from fiction. He said curricula should remain in the control of local school boards and parents.
“There is no need for political agendas to be forced on students,” he said.
Even in places where the new standards are in place, experts say many teachers are not adequately trained to teach climate change.
While 75 percent of public school science teachers devote time to climate change and almost all public school students are likely to receive at least some global warming education, teachers often lack resources and professional development opportunities, according to a survey by the National Center for Science Education and Penn State’s Survey Research Center conducted during the 2014-2015 school year.
The survey found that prior teacher training in climate science was minimal. “Fewer than half of all teachers had any formal coursework—even one class lecture—on climate change,” it said. “Of those who did not study climate change during college, only one in five has obtained continuing education on the topic.”
“We’re sort of playing catch-up in helping teachers get the training they need as well as provide them with the materials that they need for working in classrooms,” said David Evans, executive director at the National Science Teachers Association.
The same survey of 1,500 teachers also found students receive mixed messages when it comes to the cause of global warming. Thirty percent of teachers who taught about climate change emphasized both human and natural causes. When asked about their views on the scientific consensus, only two-thirds of teachers said then that human activities were the primary culprit.
‘It needs to be taught’
When it comes to resources, things are gradually changing.
Despite President Trump’s skepticism of climate change, NOAA has continued its climate education program, providing educational resources on climate change to thousands of teachers and students annually. NOAA also promotes and provides professional learning opportunities to advance teachers’ climate knowledge and skill, Niepold said.
Last year, the state of Washington passed a law investing $4 million in state grants toward science teacher training, including in climate science.
“With this bill, Washington also advances to leading the nation in K-12 climate literacy having become the first state in the country to dedicate significant support for climate education included in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS),” E3 Washington, the state association for environmental and sustainability teachers, said in a statement.
In Connecticut, state Rep. Christine Palm (D) introduced a bill that would make it mandatory under state law to teach climate change in public schools starting from as early as elementary school. If the bill passes, Connecticut will be the first state in the country to adopt such a mandate. However, since Connecticut has adopted NGSS, schools are already required to teach climate change.
On the other hand, state Rep. John Piscopo (R) also introduced a bill in Connecticut to eliminate climate change from the NGSS. He says it’s “a controversial area of information” that’s still questionable, despite the mainstream scientific consensus that it is real and happening. That bill is unlikely to pass, though, in the Democratic-controlled state government.
Jenna Totz, climate change education manager at the advocacy group Climate Generation, said she hoped the various bills seeking to get rid of climate education requirements would fail.
“When students aren’t learning about climate change at all, they’re really losing out,” she said. “It’s a disservice to our students.”
As for teachers, some are eager to teach about man-made climate change, but others still tend to be leery, according to Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education.
Although she does not mention the term in class—concerned that it might turn off some skeptical students—Corley, the Texas teacher, still believes it’s important to teach kids about it.
“It’s definitely science, and it needs to be taught,” she said. “If they’re not taught the science behind it, then they’re not going to see the need to continue to make changes to improve things for the generation to come.”
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.