November/December 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 2

Getting the Science Right: Teaching Climate Change in the Classroom

Posted: Monday, December 3rd, 2012

by Minda Berbeco

As the newest Programs and Policy Director here at the National Center for Science Education, I am constantly asked where educators can find good lesson plans and classroom activities to teach about climate change.

  • Is there something for 2nd graders?
  • Can it involve water resources?
  • How about a chemistry focus?
  • Will it fit into already established statewide science standards?
  • Can it involve students in the search for practical solutions?

These questions are especially pressing because even though climate change can fit well into almost any science course, whether biology, chemistry, or earth sciences, textbooks often skip over the topic, concerned that it is “controversial” or assuming that it will be covered elsewhere. I can’t answer all such questions here, but there are three sources of lesson plans and classroom activities on climate change that I recommend—not only because they’re useful but also because of the way in which they model good scientific and pedagogical practice.

Bringing climate change education into the classroom

An Internet search for climate change lesson plans comes up with over 2 million results. For a teacher, the options are mind-boggling. How could you even find the time to go through all of those resources? How do you know whether they are based in sound science?

The Climate Literacy & Energy Awareness Network is an ideal place for teachers to start when looking for lesson plans that will fit science standards. CLEAN is an online repository for lesson plans and other educational materials on climate and energy topics. All of the materials go through a multi-step scientific review from researchers with topic-specific expertise, as well as a teacher review to ensure good pedagogical practices. The searchable database allows educators to filter the material by age group, literacy principles, topics and more. It is a great resource for those looking for simple lesson plans to implement in an already full classroom.

Bring students together to create change

Teachers don’t have to become instant experts on climate change to engage students in the science. Many have started bringing in outside organizations to engage students in climate and energy literacy.

One such program is provided by the Alliance for Climate Education (ACE), which works nationally to educate high school students on climate change in a positive and solution-focused manner. ACE starts engaging students though a school-wide assembly, and then builds an action-focused community of students. In the past, students have focused on decreasing their energy usage, saving schools money and reducing their carbon footprint substantially. This year, students are attempting to reduce the amount of waste being generated by the school. Engaging students in action plans, while educating them about the science and consequences of climate change, ensures that students do not become disillusioned when learning about this topic. Solutions are the focus, and this gets students engaged.

Students as agents of community change

The consequences of climate change can seem dire to students, resulting in disillusionment and disregard for the science. Somehow, it can be easier to ignore or dispute the science if students find the implications disturbing.

One way to address this challenge is to empower students to engage in solutions outside of school. The ECO2School in Sonoma County has started working with local schools to empower students to change their carbon footprints. Students develop their own science-based solutions to address climate change in their community, while being trained in organizing and leadership skills. Groups form a team with a math and science teacher as facilitators to encourage a strong basis in the STEM fields. Through encouraging biking, carpooling, and even walking, they generate their own school-wide initiative to evaluate and then reduce the carbon footprint of their community’s commute.

Students will need to have a good understanding of the science of climate change in order to make educated and thoughtful policy decisions about the consequences of climate change in the future. Unfortunately, many teachers avoid the subject, because they feel poorly prepared to address the many questions that can arise or are concerned about bringing controversy into their classroom. In addition, the resources are not yet in place at the state level to encourage them to present the science accurately and effectively. With lessons and programs such as the ones described here, though, it is becoming easier for teachers to integrate climate change into their science teaching.

Please note CSTA’s disclaimer regarding links to outside source: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

Written by Minda Berbeco

Minda Berbeco

Minda Berbeco was the Programs and Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education and is now the Director of the Sierra Club San Francisco Chapter.

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In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the California NGSS k-8 Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

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