Partnership is the key in unlocking the power of climate education as a solution

At Climate Generation’s 17th annual Summer Institute for Climate Change Education on July 18–22, 2022, Presidio Graduate Schools will lead a workshop focusing on connections between climate change and extreme weather, as well as attribution science, aligned to Next Generation Science Standards. Students are eager to learn about climate change, yet even science teachers can feel unprepared to effectively incorporate climate literacy into their curriculum while empowering their students with themes of hope and action.

Over the past year, Presidio Graduate Schools has led a series of professional learning opportunities for teachers focused on climate change. We’ve seen firsthand how important teacher professional development is to unlock the potential of climate education to solve the climate crisis.

Research indicates climate change education among middle-grade children (ages 10–14) not only engaged the children, but also helped educate, and even change the minds of, the children’s parents as well.

As students learn about climate change, they bring that knowledge home to parents and grandparents who are influenced to make environmentally friendly family decisions to protect the planet. One study’s findings even suggested that a 19 gigaton reduction in carbon dioxide was achievable by 2050 if just 16% of high school students in developed advanced nations received adequate climate change education.

The full potential of climate education as a solution, however, is not yet being realized. A survey revealed that while 86% of teachers believe that climate change should be taught in school —and 80% of parents agree —55% of teachers say they don’t teach climate change in the classroom or even mention it. Why? Teachers either believe climate change is not related to the subject they teach, their students are too young, they feel they don’t know enough about it, or they don’t have the materials to teach it.

In light of these findings, the need for professional learning opportunities for K–12 educators to build their understanding of and confidence to teach climate change became clear. When they are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and tools to teach climate change they are an empowering force for change and they become part of the solution. This was the motivation for the launch of the Climate Change Education for All program by Presidio Graduate School in April 2021.

How Teachers are Embracing Climate Change Education

A secondary teacher in Kentucky had her students conduct research on the school’s carbon footprint. They interviewed various staff, collected data in groups, presented their findings to the class, and shared the results with the administration to encourage them to reflect on how campus operations could be moved towards more sustainable practices.

Similarly, a sixth-grade teacher in Montana discussed solutions to climate change linked to reducing carbon emissions with their class and the students decided to do a school-wide fundraiser to make a donation to onetreeplanted.org. As part of the project they created posters to educate the rest of the school about climate change and why they were raising money.

One 2nd-grade teacher has started to include climate change education in her morning meeting talking about the weather, incorporating a new vocabulary word every day, watching climate videos, and a daily question, “What is one thing you did yesterday to help take care of the environment?” Her students have also started working in the school garden once a week. As a result, she says her students genuinely want to know more and are highly interested in how they can take care of their community.

Another middle school teacher examined the impacts of flooding related to extreme weather and natural disasters and their causes. The discussion included how they are increasing due to global warming and focuses on what impacts are seen locally. It became real when the school was closed due to flooding from an atmospheric river. After the flood, the class toured the local watershed surrounding the campus, observing that the infrastructure was built 80 years ago. They noted a higher population, more storms, and fewer trees and old-growth on the hills all adding up to increased frequency and severity of local flooding. Students made infographics, street signs, and posters that were hung around the school to make people more aware of these ongoing issues.

One high school earth science teacher augmented her curriculum by introducing her students to the concept of climate justice. She had her students look at the data on CO2 emissions and which countries had the highest and lowest emissions, and then compared that data to extreme heat events and where those had occurred. Students discovered that the countries most vulnerable to heat waves were not those producing the highest emissions. At the conclusion of the project, students created posters that visually represented what they had learned about climate change and climate justice that also incorporated actions that can be taken locally, nationally, and globally to solve the problem.

In addition to teacher testimonials, the course evaluation data makes it clear that teacher professional development is the key to unlocking the potential of climate education to make a major impact on solving climate change. Of our course participants, 97% agree the course made them more confident to teach climate change, 100% state they are likely to incorporate climate change into their lesson plans, and 94% agree the knowledge they gained will have a direct impact on their students.

As we have been writing this blog, the significance of this work has literally hit our homes. We both live in Montana, where abnormal levels of heavy rainfall combined with snow melt have caused flooding and devastation in our hometowns of Red Lodge and Billings. Yellowstone National Park, in our own backyard, has closed because the floodwaters have wiped out miles of roads and bridges in and around the park and swamped scores of homes, businesses, and roads. Residents have had to be airlifted to safety by military helicopters and numerous others are homeless from the water damage. Plus, our friends and neighbors have limited access to electricity, fresh drinking water, showers, and laundry.

While this is our story of how climate change is personal and local, you can find other examples and inspiration in the teacher’s stories above.

We urge all educators, regardless of grade or subject level, to think outside the box and consider how they might introduce climate change into their existing curriculum. Reflect, like the teachers above, on how you can seize the opportunity to connect real-world events affecting the lives of your students, schools, and communities to discussions about climate change, and specifically to the solutions.

Focus on both mitigation and adaptation strategies and actions that can be taken at the individual, school, or community level.

Whether it’s a campaign for an electric school bus, drawing attention to the amount of waste produced by the lunch program, lobbying for a funding initiative to retrofit a school with air-conditioning, cultivating a school garden, or taking students on a real or virtual environmental education field trip, every action from educators, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction.

Alyson Mike is the instructional designer of the teacher professional learning courses in Presidio Graduate Schools’ Climate Change Education for All program. Jenny Combs is the lead facilitator of the climate change online courses.

This blog is part of the Look Up: Voices to Power story series grounding us in the people of the climate movement — encouraging us to “look up” and onward toward solutions that are happening right now across our communities. Stay engaged in the series with #LookUpSpeakOut and @climategenorg.

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