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Climate Conscious: In the Classroom

By: Brynne O’Hare

The effects of climate change are evident, and a younger generation is getting involved in mitigating the catastrophic effects of global warming. It is well known that students are forming organizations and getting involved in the greener Earth movement. The question remains, though, why does climate change advocacy have to happen primarily only outside of school? According to a poll done with IPSOS and NPR, over half of teachers don’t ever touch on the subject of climate change in the classroom, but 77% of citizens believe it should be taught in school, according to Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication. However, global warming education has been successfully incorporated into many classrooms, and it is clear that we need climate change education now more than ever.

Rhonda Stern, 64, who has been teaching climate awareness and climate advocacy for twenty years in the Chicago area weighs in on how we can get kids engaged early on. When introducing students to climate change science for the first time, Stern says, “What I usually do is ask them to do is observe changes in their environment. So for kids in Chicago, that would be the lake level.” Stern realized taking action to save the planet was necessary when she attended the JASON summer program (a program that teaches how STEM is incorporated in real life) and saw that the next generation of students are the ones who will have the ability to make the most powerful changes. She realized the science behind climate change was more than just a damaged ozone layer, and the results of global warming were more imminent than she had thought.

After introducing the topic, Stern says she takes a solutions focus so that students can say “I’m getting ready to grapple with this problem.” As far as teaching resources go, Stern uses NASA scientist Jeffrey Bennett’s book Global Warming Primer and media resources like Inside Climate News.

Abbie Enlund, Executive Director of the Illinois Environmental Education Association, agrees getting kids involved in learning about climate science starts with taking it back to the beginning. She asks kids questions like, “How do our daily choices and activities impact the environment? For choices that are not sustainable or take a higher toll on the environment, what are some other options?” From her perspective, critical thinking from a young age is truly key. In terms of resources, she recommends first training educators with programs like Project Learning Tree Climate Change, or working directly with EEAI to create specific programs for teachers.

University of Illinois State Climatologist, Dr. Trent Ford, agrees that teaching climate in the classroom is the key to a more informed generation ready to take on the challenges of today. However, climate change is a hot button political issue for many, which can pose challenges in an educational setting. “There are real policy debates that have to happen to better understand what we have to do,” Trent says, “The science itself really needs to stay apolitical.” But how do we do this? Ford explains that when talking to “an environment that could be politically charged” he presents the data as scientific facts, but stays mindful of his message based on where he is. For example, more affluent neighborhoods of Chicago will have different conversations about climate change than those in southern Illinois communities, where coal mining is a primary source of income for many, Ford explains. From his opinion, it is the role of the educator to “tailor” these discussions so that students still get the facts, but the learning environment is case sensitive.

Climate change science is an emerging topic in schools around the country, and many efforts are being implemented to properly teach students the real science, with an understanding of different viewpoints and ideas. While there is a lot of work to still do, the future is bright for incorporating this pressing issue into the classroom.

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