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MSPnet Blog: “Climate change — what’s being taught?”

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posted June 13, 2015 – by Brian Drayton

I am an ecologist, but before I went back to grad school to become one, I was a curriculum writer for one of the first NSF grants about climate change education (the first Global Lab project, in 1988-9). It’s been a continuous thread throughout my nearly 30 years at TERC, and every year it seems more and more urgent.

For most of that time, it’s been hard going, because Americans have been extraordinarily resistant to any serious response to the crisis.  Indeed, there were many years when I felt myself in private mourning, rarely able to connect with anyone who understood the issue enough to share real concern.  Even now, Americans are more likely than almost any other nationality to be skeptical about climate change, and to feel that new action is either unnecessary or even undesirable, though thankfully this position is now more or less in the minority (see for example this international opinion poll).  For the last few years, according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, the majority of Americans agree that the climate is changing;  a bare majority (52%) agree with the science that human activities are major contributing factors in that change  (see their March 2015 report here).

Given the magnitude of the problem, and the agonizing years of inaction despite the clear need, large-scale action, including governmental action, is now necessary, but there is not yet political will to formulate and take that action, in this country.  Public opinion matters:  Yale researchers found (in another study) that

Senators were more likely to vote “Yea” on the Schatz amendment [acknowledging human-caused climate change]  if they represent states where a majority of constituents think global warming is at least partly caused by human activities. Senators from states where the public was evenly split or slightly more likely to say global warming isn’t happening or naturally caused were more likely to vote “Nay.”

Yet the Yale researchers found that this important issue is not a topic of conversation, nor of media attention:

most Americans are simply not hearing or talking about the issue…. only 40% of the American public says they hear about global warming in the media at least once a month and only 19% hear about it at least once a week. Further, only 16% say that they hear people they know talk about global warming at least once a month, with only 4% reporting they hear other people talking about it at least once a week.

and only 40% hear about it in media as often as once a week.  A community cannot make sense of such an issue without discussing and debating facts and values;  a public (in John Dewey’s sense:  an informed and activated portion of a democracy) cannot be shaped and move its representatives to action lacking such discourse.

So it was great to see that the Next Gen Science Standards take climate change for granted, and incorporated into a few areas (mostly related to earth science), but it was discouraging to see how timid and circumscribed its place in the standards is.  It is rich with possibilities in every subject, and across all disciplines, and the more that local impacts are used, the more likely it is that students (and their families) will see it as a real part of the world they inhabit, affecting things they care about.  Education is slow as a crisis response —  if it is half-hearted and unimaginative, and disconnected from most people’s concerns.  If, on the other hand, it helps make an idea “conventional wisdom,” then people will tend to respond with moral/purposive action (I am reminded of William James’s reflections on the “moral equivalent of war”)

So I recommend for your reflection a recent column by the WashingtonPost writer Catherine Rampell, who writes a very interesting piece on the ways that climate change as as scientific but also a social, personal and moral issue, has become pervasive in German education, to such an extent that it can be incorporated into any subject, as seems possible to the teacher.  The subject has intellectual, social, economic, and emotional dimensions, so any subject domain can profitably engage with it, if it seems like a live issue (a life issue) for the learner.

My work has more and more moved towards just getting the subject discussed, and seeing what happens when it is — the little daily drip-drip-drip of discussion, debate, question-and-answer is the most powerful tool, and the most urgently needed for our response to this challenge to our civilization .  Only when it’s a widely accepted problem, and taken personally, will sufficient numbers of people say, We need to act, delay is not at last acceptable (For a searching discussion from the beginning of the era of “public relations” and mass media. see John Dewey’s The Public and its problems.)

So what’s going on where you are?  How does climate change fit into your science or math classes?  Is it being used as a topic for interdisciplinary education?  The integration of computational thinking, or computer science?  Or in your area, is it one of the Subjects that Must Not Be Named?



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And in what course(s) is it being taught?

posted by: Andy Zucker on 6/14/2015 11:39 am

Like Brian, I wonder about the state of climate change education in the U.S., particularly in which courses the topic is being taught (if it is at all). On my blog about psychology and climate change ( ) I wrote last fall,

Better understanding the economics, political, regulatory, governance, diplomatic and technology issues needed to address climate change will be vital, as will an emphasis on ethics and values. It would be interesting to know how, and how often, climate change is a topic of study in other subjects taught in schools, colleges and universities (including social science classes, like Psychology), or whether it is addressed almost exclusively in hard science courses.

I suppose that in grades K-12 students most often encounter climate change in earth science or environmental science classes. But that is only a guess. Very likely many students graduate from high school having learned little about the subject in school--another guess.

Can others who are part of the MSPnet community add to this thread?

post updated by the author 6/15/2015

Or does it depend on individual teachers' initiative?

posted by: Brian Drayton on 6/14/2015 5:28 pm

First, Andy, your blog is really helpful, and I am embarrassed I didn't know about it until today. Always nice to find another ally, and discover that it's a friend from other settings.

Your question adds an interesting dimension to my original query. I wonder whether, in American education,climate change is still something that gets taught when an individual teacher gets interested and feels it's important-- an "extra". If so, then it might turn up just anywhere!

Corrected URL

posted by: Andy Zucker on 6/15/2015 10:51 am

A close parenthesis was incorporated into the URL for my blog, but should not have been. The correct URL is


posted by: David Thomas on 6/15/2015 9:32 am

As a mathematics educator with an interest in modeling, I use EdGCM (Educational Global Climate Model) from Columbia University to demonstrate the power and value of mathematical modeling in scientific research. This tool is the "real deal", with a user interface adapted to the needs and limitations of novices. Is anybody else using EdGCM?


posted by: Brian Drayton on 6/18/2015 6:17 am

David, thanks for this-- I'd also like to hear of others who are using this tool-- or others that seem promising.
One angle that I'm particularly interested in is, does the tool enable students to do any model-building, in addition to model-using?

Climate Change Education

posted by: Jill L. Karsten on 6/15/2015 1:12 pm

As co-chair of the NSF Climate Change Education Working Group, I would like to point to several resources germane to this thread.

In 2009, Congress gave funding to NSF and NASA for stand-alone climate change education grant programs. At NSF, these funds were used to support 15 Phase 1 Climate Change Education Partnership (CCEP-I) projects, which brought together 3 types of required expertise: climate scientists, learning scientists, and education practitioners in either formal or informal learning environments. Phase 1 projects were 2-year strategic planning efforts to build the partnership, learn to speak across the expertise cultures, conduct needs assessments, and develop an implementation plan for a 5-year Phase II project. In 2012, 6 CCEP-II projects were funded and are on-going. Together, the 6 projects comprise the CCEP Alliance, which is coordinated by the University of Rhode Island. You can learn more about these projects and the resources they are developing at

Knowing that NASA and NOAA (through its Environmental Literacy Grant program) were also supporting climate change education efforts, NSF worked with these agencies to establish the Tri-Agency Climate Education (TrACE) collaboration. We have held join meetings of Principal Investigators - to encourage cross-collaboration and minimize duplication - and have established a searchable catalog of climate education resources being developed through these grants - see

NSF has also supported additional climate education research through some of its core programs, and many of these are highlighted in the TrACE Catalog.

The tri-agency collaboration forms the heart of a larger interagency collaboration under the auspices of the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). The current USGCRP strategic plan has "communication, education, and engagement" as one of its 4 overarching goals, and there are on-going discussions among Federal program staff regarding how best to synergize and support these types of activites, leveraging resources such as the National Climate Assessment.

With regard to the question of what is being taught currently in classrooms, you might want to look at some of the resources in the National Earth Science Teachers Association (NESTA) web site: NESTA did a survey of its members (as did Susan Buhr, among others) about teacher attitudes regarding climate change in the classroom, and it was clear that there were substantial barriers, both in terms of content knowledge regarding this complex subject matter and fear or reprisals. When you add to the mix the fact that fewer than 30% of high school students take a geoscience course (where teaching about climate as an Earth System is perhaps best introduced) before graduation, then it is not surprising that climate literacy is relatively low in the U.S.

In spite of the Federal investments into improving climate education - now drying up due to opposition in "appropriate" places (that's a double entendre, folks!) - we have a long way to go.

Climate change ed

posted by: Brian Drayton on 6/18/2015 6:21 am

Jill, this is a very helpful post. It prompts two questions for me:
1. Is Congressional pressure affecting climate change awards being made at the agencies (aside from shrinking/ending funding)?

2. I know that a lot of great materials are being produced do you have any evidence about how much they're being used? Does anyone else out there?

It's all about the Carbon Cycle

posted by: Dan Casarcia on 6/18/2015 9:00 am

As an 8th grade Life Science teacher, I have found an opportunity to teach climate change during the photosynthesis unit. Students understand that producers, such as plants and algae, take carbon in the form of CO2 from the atmosphere and convert it into sugars and even cellulose (wood). They then grasp that the carbon trapped in the plant/algae can form into fossil fuels. There it stays until we burn the fossil fuels. They learn in other classes that we began burn fossil fuels in a big way since the Industrial Revolution. Then the light bulb goes on and climate change is not a mysterious theory, but a logical conclusion that they can wrap their 8th grade minds around. They will believe it if the understand it. If you ask them to just trust the scientists, some will remain skeptical.

coming to understand about climate change

posted by: Brian Drayton on 6/20/2015 7:00 am

Thanks for this. There's two things I like about it.
First, I think science is best taught as a way of answering questions, rather than the transmission of received knowledge. That is, the introduction of new material needs to include "What question were people trying to answer? What's the problem they were trying to solve?" -- as you do here.

Second, it's important to see climate change as more then a scientific puzzle -- it is a quintessentially "biocomplex" or "CNH" (coupled human-nonhuman) phenomenon, so science, society, culture, philosophy, history, economics....