Rolling your eyes at climate change education

I recently had an eye-opening experience at work at the National Museum of Natural History. A couple of colleagues and I went into the exhibit halls to ask groups of teens about what they would find interesting to learn more about in a museum. We had a number of preselected topics and we selected a few for each group or individual we spoke with. When asked about climate change, one group responded “Climate change?  That again?” with a roll of the eyes. “We’ve been learning about climate change as long as I can remember.”

This is not to say they did not care about climate change — in fact, they did care a great deal.  This group simply seemed to have experienced too much climate change education, and it got me wondering how many other students out there have lost interest in climate change, and why.

I later asked some of my teenage relatives, receiving a similar response. One began learning about it in third grade, with interest. Then three years later he began losing interest, perhaps because it was overkill and perhaps because his interests seemed to move on as he got older.

Is there too much climate change education? How much climate change education is there in schools, anyway? Are kids sick of learning about global warming, increased super storms, and melting glaciers?  More importantly, is there more quantity than quality in climate change education? Do kids see it as a “school topic” rather than a global crisis?

We found the museum visitors’ responses surprising and enlightening. As we did their response to our next question: “What will Earth be like in 100 years?”  Their response: “Yeah, that sounds pretty interesting.”

Fascinating.  Just this little change in perspective seems to make a big difference.  And it got me thinking…

How much is out there about climate change?

Before I continue, let me be clear that I have no problems at all with climate change education, and none at all with the lessons I mention below.

Peterborough (United Kingdom) has its own climate change game designed and made by Peterborough City Council and students at Hampton College.

It seems as though there exists a lesson plan for climate change for every age group from kindergarten through college. And outside of school curriculum the topic is covered by non-profits (Alliance for Climate Education), universities, government institutions (NASANOAAFREE), and more. I was easily able to find lesson activities for grades 6-8 and 9-12 at the University of Madison, Wisconsin’s online Water Library No sooner did I find Climate Change Education, a web portal that collects curriculum resources.

In 2010 the National Science Foundation announced the launch of a climate change education partnership with schools, universities, zoos and aquariums, and other institutions across the country.

As far as state science curricula, I first went to look in California, who I thought would surely have some mention of climate change in its curriculum.  Well, the science frameworks for grades does not mention “climate change.”  For grades 9-12 the framework states:

  1. Students know how computer models are used to predict the effects of the increase in greenhouse gases on climate for the planet as a whole and for specific regions”
  2. “Human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels, is increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This buildup can potentially cause a significant increase in global temperatures and affect global and regional weather patterns.”
  3. “The greenhouse effect is important to Earth’s climate because without that effect the planet would be much colder and more like Mars. But if the concentration of absorbing gases is too high, trapping too much heat in the atmosphere, excessive heating could occur on Earth, producing global warming and a climate closer to that of Venus.”

I found no mention of climate change for grades K-8, which I found surprising.

I then went to check out Tennessee because I had come across a report that describes how the state will allow teachers to “teach the controversy” about evolution and climate change.  But, all things considered, I found more than I expected when I read Tennessee’s environmental science curriculum for grades 9-12.

  1. “Describe how gases in the atmosphere affect climate.”
  2. “Explain how human activity is related to ozone depletion and climate change.”

In K-8 however, there was no mention of the word “greenhouse”, and the only mention of “climate” was “The earth is surrounded by an active atmosphere and an energy system that controls the distribution life, local weather, climate, and global temperature.

It doesn’t seem like there is too much climate change education happening in Tennessee or California.  I would say too little.

In Maryland, only grade 8 environmental education covers climate change.

Interestingly, when I looked in Maryland, there was a direct mention for grade 8 environmental science in humans affecting climate change and other natural cycles.  But I couldn’t find any mention for grades 9-12.

At this point it seems as though there is very little, in my opinion climate change education happening.  However, the National Research Council has put together a framework for K-12 science education.  The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) will be using this framework as states develop new science standards.

Grade levels aren’t broken down grade-by-grade, but “by the end of grade 2, 5, 8 and 12”.  This framework is much more explicit in emphasizing climate change.  When it comes down to climate change (pages 196-198), grade 2 does not cover the topic, though grades 5, 8 and 12 progressively get more involved, from conceptual to models.  (I intentionally did not quote their text because it gets a bit long.)

A new concern

Did you notice it?

There is a lot of climate change educational resources out there between non-profits, government agencies, even camps, museums and aquariums for all age levels.  Probably more so than a teacher can fit into his or her classroom every year, for every grade.  Even in the states’ educational frameworks climate change is mentioned only briefly.  With the little mention of climate change in school frameworks, why are students becoming burnt out on climate change?  Maybe I missed something, but there are possibilities.  Climate change could be the “example” given in classrooms about some math problem or writing topic.  Maybe it’s just that the topic is covered so much more in informal environments than in formal learning environments.

Has anyone else talked with students who aren’t interested in climate change anymore?  And how much climate change education is enough before becoming too much?

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17 Responses to Rolling your eyes at climate change education

  1. Pingback: Why is climate change education important to our health? – PLoS Blogs (blog) | rss

  2. Pingback: ENVIRONMENT NOW… » Blog Archive » Some Hope for Education in the US

  3. Steve Bloom says:

    Adam, my impression from having talked to a number of teachers about this here in CA is that it’s a “teach to the test” problem. Climate change isn’t on the test(s). (Although perhaps it is for the one level you mentioned, but that material doesn’t actually cover much ground, or at least doesn’t have to, especially if the teachers don’t understand the material very well themselves.) As a consequence, even teachers will resist it being added to the curriculum. Of course this problem extends to plenty of other topics.

    Thanks for highlighting this problem.

  4. TinyCO2 says:

    Sorry, I sometimes get a bit hot and bothered and that bit just blew a fuse.

    On a calmer note.

    Climate change is conveyed to the public in such a simplified form that it is little more than advertising. Catchy phrases, cartoons, celebrities, exaggerated facts, half truths, these are the ways that governments and media try to sell AGW to the public. The aim is not to explain climate science, it is to get a mandate to force people to cut CO2. There is no debate. You don’t get to use your knowledge of climate to have an opinion. More detailed knowledge doesn’t make the picture clearer, just the opposite. The more you know, the more questions arise. So the science never gets beyond the simple caricature but it appears everywhere. News stories, kids TV, films, interviews, comedy, you name it climate change creeps into the fabric of communication. Each message says CO2 bad, the World will end unless the bad men stop polluting.

    People absorb it without even realising it’s there and they believe it. Well they do until they’re asked to start paying. At that point people balk and think ‘I believe… but not THAT much’. Frustrated, the authorities and green prophets wonder if perhaps the public would be more amenable if they were indoctrinated when they were younger. It’s a popular technique used by war lords and cults the World over. It works. For some little eco zealots, the brainwashing will last a lifetime. But the majority will grow up, get mortgages, kids, bills and a car and think ‘I believe… but not THAT much’.

    So what could kids be taught? Perhaps you could tell them the truth, that it’s all about having less. Make school rules that reflect the principles you want them to have in later life. Ban clothes with logos, electronics, vending machines and insist on smaller food portions. Turn the heating and the air conditioning down. Get parents to stop competing to give their kids higher and higher allowance and gift values. Teach kids to choose their gifts carefully, rather than buying something that will be discarded before January is out. It is the skills of moderation that society would need to learn if AGW was serious and if it isn’t then they’ll be served well by what they’d learnt in later life.

    And maybe… teach them the whole truth. Show them the arguments for and against rapid action on CO2. Get them to examine what makes a good energy saving and what doesn’t work. Let them have the debate that the rest of us have been denied and maybe they’ll see climate change as a problem to be solved and not shied away from. It might spur someone on to invent the new energy source so we don’t have to cut back or another might decide to be the scientist who conclusively proves if AGW is serious or not.

  5. Genevieve says:

    I am curious if you asked these students specifics of their education in climate change, because I think it is possible that they are confusing climate change education with earth sciences education in general. In my middle and high schools, earth sciences were most students first and last exposure to science (from tectonic plates to elemental chemistry). The average student took numerous courses in earth sciences, while only students in advanced classes had opportunities to diversify their science education with biology, physics, and chemistry. If, as you suggest, many teachers are framing these lessons in the context of climate change, then I can easily see how students may be exhausted of the topic.

  6. Great insight into the issue and I wonder if we are generally throwing too much of the problems at our students and not inspiring solutions.

    Maryland’s Environmental Literacy Standards and the last draft of the Next Generation Science Standards attempt to make this connection. Both of these encourage a solutions approach through action projects in the first and the connection of scientific concepts with science and engineering practices in the second. I would think that we should be providing our students with opportunities to innovate and be inspired to develop solutions and be good decision-makers and ultimately citizens.

  7. TinyCO2 says:

    I’m sorry, I can’t respond to the issues behind your post because I fell off my chair.

    “heating could occur on Earth, producing global warming and a climate closer to that of Venus,” VENUS!!!! That’s a disgraceful amount of exaggeration. It’s like me walking from one end of a north/south road to the other and saying that the climate there is closer to that of the Arctic compared to where I started.

    Venus is 462°C or 863°F!!! The Earth a modest 14°C (57°F). It is currently at most 0.6°C above that ‘normal’. Even when CO2 was at 7000ppm (compared to 392ppm now) during the time of the dinosaurs the global temperature never went above 22°C.

    How could you quote that without your eyes popping, not just rolling? All I can say is thank [insert a deity or obscenity] kids aren’t taking AGW science seriously, if this is the level of garbage they’re being brainwashed with.

    • Adam Blankenbicker says:

      I was surprised to see that, too, and am curious who’s idea that was…

    • Prolduke says:

      My understanding is that a runaway greenhouse effect would eventually produce Venus’s climate on this planet but this would take millions of years — a blink of a geological eyelid but far too long for appreciation by your average human (let alone for climate change deniers who can’t conceive life 100 years into the future).
      There is no planet B.

    • You can either propagandize “Climate Change” or you can return to teaching Science . You can’t do both .

      Simply teaching them how to calculate the temperature of a radiantly heated colored ball , well within the difficulty level of the highschool PSSC physics course I had half a century ago , would put an end to this nonscience . It is criminal stupidity from it’s very foundation .

      Inescapable 19th century physics shows Venus would have to be 10 times as reflective in the infrared as aluminum foil for its surface temperature to be explained by the energy it receives from the sun . It is no explainable as a “runaway greenhouse effect” .
      See for the computations .

      • Prolduke says:

        Bob, I find it incredible that you think your 50 year old high school physics demolishes the findings of thousands of current PhDs. I wish this didn’t sound abusive because it’s actually a serious question: have you considered whether you might be dementing?

        • Well , the derivations of the Stefan-Boltzmann and Planck functions are beyond highschool , but the concepts are not . Its more than a century old . Certainly experiments demonstrating the laws can be conducted by high school students and given the importance of this topic should be .

          “Climate Scientists” do lip service to the inescapable radiative balance but then never accurately calculate it . If they did , we would see some forward progress in this uniquely stagnate branch of applied physics .

  8. Howeln says:

    My wife is an Environmental Science Teacher in a California HS (where it is an elective at some schools), and I would say that while there may be lots of examples, TV, and general knowledge (some months have more content that others), It think in general the knowledge doesn’t have any real depth, or lacks that simple way of explaining a very complicated point that the average student can absorb. And while there may be many good sources with a good balance of knowledge with explanations, someone has to help them put all the pieces together.

    If taught well, there is a fine balance in dealing with the complexity without overwhelming the student, both in content and the possible futures that await them.

  9. Barry Woods says:

    Ro Randall – Pyschotherapist (and climate campaigner, Carbon Conversations)

    Should we be working with children about climate change?

    Climate change community groups often want to work with children. ‘We must get into the schools,’ says someone and there is a nod of agreement. It’s worth thinking about the psychology behind this. Why is this idea so appealing? And why is it so damaging?


    “limate change makes most adults working on it feel powerless. We compare the actions we are capable of with the scale of the problem and feel weak. We look at the extent of our influence and feel helpless. We struggle to combat our contrary desires to consume and feel shame. We feel like children. Children – who are actually socially and politically powerless – are an ideal receptacle for the projection of these uncomfortable and unacceptable feelings.

    By focusing on the weakest members of society and influencing them, the not-very-powerful adults make themselves feel better at the expense of the absolutely-not-powerful children. By making them act, we prove that we are not as powerless as we feel.”

    it finishes with:

    “So – if you want to work with children – take them outside and let them play. Use other ways to deal with your own despair and powerlessness.”

    • Dr. GS Hurd says:

      Excellent observations. I was a science educator, and when dealing with species/habitat loss, climate change, etc I have always considered it a poor practice to introduce it to young children too early.