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How to Address the Climate Change Debate in Your Classroom

Support students' critical-thinking skills and stand up for good science.

April 18, 2017
Danny Wagner Manager, STEM Education Content

CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Research & Studies, Students

As a former middle school science teacher, I don't envy today's teachers in tackling the subject of climate change. This is a topic that scientists and science educators almost unanimously agree is a dire threat to our planet but, among some politicians, is still up for debate. What are teachers to do when the science says one thing but our students turn on the TV and hear something else?

In the Obama era, the government was forthcoming about its belief in the threat of global climate change on our natural world, our economy, and our way of life. In the new Trump administration, we've seen a reversal of many of Obama's energy policies, a defunding of the EPA, and less clear language about where we're headed next. Our students are watching these abrupt and highly visible changes play out in the media.

A survey conducted earlier this year and published in the journal Science showed that it's not only our leaders who are sending mixed messages about climate change and its causes but that teachers are as well.

While the work of science and of teachers must remain politically neutral, the science itself is part of a political debate. To ignore this and the ongoing debates around science in our classroom is a disservice to our students and affects the authenticity of our instruction. A recent Pew report suggested that "[i]t could be the case that people's political orientations are an anchoring point for applying their knowledge -- rather than the other way around." It would be great to distill our teaching down to pure science and leave out the rest, but it would further erode our ability to convince students that school is relevant to them. Instead, teachers can give students a grounding in the science but also help them think critically about how what they learn is discussed among politicians and the media.

Not surprisingly, a survey conducted earlier this year and published in the journal Science showed that it's not only our leaders who are sending mixed messages about climate change and its causes but that teachers are as well. On the eve of the March for Science, it's time to take a step back and think about how we address this issue with our students. We don't need to take a stand for the left or right, but we do need to stand up for good science.

Keep that outdated textbook shut.

Climate science is changing rapidly, and your textbook is likely already filled with obsolete information. Find reputable sources online such as NASA, NOAA, and the EPA not only to guide your students' learning but to learn about the issue yourself. Let's face it: You're probably no Joe Climatologist. You don't have to be an expert, but make sure you're not spreading misinformation. Instead, take the time to get a refresher before jumping into instruction, stop misconceptions before they start, and embrace the fact that you'll be learning along with your students.

Be clear about what's up for debate and what's not.

There was a time when classrooms debated whether or not the earth was heating up at all. With better models, more evidence, and more time to perfect climate studies, scientists now can show that humans play a part in the changing and warming of our planet. Keep in mind that one of the NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas is: "Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth's mean surface temperature (global warming)." If you're going to have a debate, discuss not whether humans play a role but for what amount they are responsible and what, if anything, should be done about it.

Let the debate lead to deeper learning.

Debates are great, and students should be debating climate change. However, students need your guidance and facilitation. With a disputed topic, sometimes it's less risky to have students just take a side, do some research, engage in a highly procedural debate, and then call it a day. But this can cause misconceptions based on who is more persuasive. Make sure students understand the data, can make sense of the arguments, and are able to do real work around the issue. Talk about which arguments were strong and which were weak, and guide students to where they can find more information. Otherwise they might come to their own conclusions and fall prey to bad science.

Humans have had a significant impact on climate change, but it's important to show we're part of a larger structure. Make sure to weave a tale of the interconnectedness of our planet and its many systems. Make models of events such as volcanic eruptions, ocean circulation, solar output, and changes to Earth's orbit that can have an impact on climate change as well. This is a great time to inject some humility into your lessons and to show students that humans are not the only driving forces on the planet.  

Teach your students to be fact-finding detectives.

Even as a science teacher, you can't hide from the news and media. Help students learn to recognize a credible source, read and analyze science articles, and understand why even a published journal might have misleading statistics. When students have questions about a source, go to Snopes or SciCheck, a branch of FactCheck.org that focuses on checking scientific claims. Work together to debunk misinformation as a class and try to understand the motivations behind why a liberal-leaning article might show the dangers of sea levels rising or what a conservative author might gain by denying human involvement.

Jump-start real work on climate.

Get students involved in NGSS practices that analyze climate change data. Use kid-facing sites such as Climate Kids or A Student's Guide to Global Climate Change, gather data from an app like Earth-Now, and get your students doing authentic project-based learning. Developing critical-thinking skills around data is just the beginning. Students can begin to design good-sense solutions that transcend politics. This is also a great time to collaborate with another teacher on an interdisciplinary unit that incorporates elements of history, math, and language.

Most importantly, don't teach students to just be passive observers of scientific phenomena. If the March for Science teaches us anything, it's that we need to take action to keep science at the forefront of our national conversation. Students can take action, too: They can pursue a solution to a problem, start a club, write a senator, and march. Encourage students to pursue their passions outside the classroom, promote good science, and make the world a place they're proud to live in.


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