Climate Change Education Gains Momentum In Public Schools

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New Jersey has become the first state in the country to implement climate change education standards across grade levels and subjects. The standards, which went into effect this fall, introduce students as young as kindergartners to the topic to prepare them for a world and career increasingly reshaped by climate pollution.

Children born within the last decade, sometimes referred to as “Generation Alpha,” will be the first to experience a planet through their entire lives that has been irrevocably altered by human caused global warming. The reality will force them to exist differently than their parents and grandparents, shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy and to manage as extreme weather wreaks havoc.

Today’s children will need skills and structures to recreate interactions with the natural world, tell stories about corporate climate influences, and create healthy public policy. Emerging green jobs are already changing career prep.

Climate change education is a starting place toward reimagining a future with climate mitigation and resilience.

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What Climate Change Education across the Curriculum Looks Like

With the adoption of the 2020 New Jersey Student Learning Standards (NJSLS), New Jersey is the first state in the nation to include climate change across content areas. These standards are designed to prepare students to understand how and why climate change happens, the impact it has on local and global communities, and to act in informed and sustainable ways. Districts are encouraged to utilize the NJSLS to develop interdisciplinary units focused on climate change that include authentic learning experiences, integrate a range of perspectives, and are action oriented.

“There’s no way we can expect our children to have the solutions and the innovations to these challenges if we’re not giving them the tools and resources needed here and now,” said Tammy Murphy, a founding member of former vice president Al Gore’s Climate Reality Action Fund. Just as students must be able to add and subtract before learning calculus, she told the Hechinger Report, kids need to understand the basics of climate change — the language and logic of the existential crisis — before they can tackle its solutions.

How Climate Deniers are Reacting to New Learning Standards

The impetus for climate change education started to change in 2013, with the release of the national Next Generation Science Standards, which instructed science teachers to introduce students to climate change and its human causes, starting in middle school.

As of fall, 2020, 29 states and the District of Columbia had adopted standards that require science classes to teach human caused climate change as a peril beyond dispute, according to K12 Climate Action, a group that is part of the Aspen Institute. States like Connecticut plan to integrate lessons on human caused climate change into their regular science curriculum starting in July, 2023 — interdisciplinary climate change education is on hold in Connecticut for the time being.

Historically, climate change has not been comprehensively taught in US schools, largely because of the partisanship surrounding climate change and many teachers’ limited grasp of the science. Other states may not mention the human causes of the crisis, and a few even promote falsehoods about it, according to a 2020 report from the National Center for Science Education and Texas Freedom Network Education Fund.

In Florida, where I live and where students have recently seen the devastation from Hurricane Ian, the words “climate change” do not appear in their elementary or middle level education standards.

“It’s not like we’re asking kindergartners to look at the Keeling Curve” — the daily monitoring of carbon dioxide concentrations — said Lauren Madden, a professor of education at the College of New Jersey, who prepared a report on the standards. Supporters are trying to ensure that teachers have plenty of examples for teaching the standards in age appropriate ways, with racial and environmental justice as one of the key features of the instruction. New Jersey has set aside $5 million for lesson plans and professional development and is enlisting teachers with credentials and passion for the environment to develop model lessons.

For now, the climate instruction requirements haven’t faced much pushback from climate deniers. Conservatives have trained their attacks instead on sex education standards and critical race theory accusations.

Research suggests education does have an impact on how people understand climate change and their willingness to take action to stop it. One study found that college students who took a class that discussed reducing their carbon footprint tended to adopt environment-friendly practices and stick with them over many years. Another study determined that educating middle schoolers about climate change resulted in their parents expressing greater concern about the problem.

What Climate Change Education Looks Like for Toddlers — Cartoons

Octonauts: Above and Beyond is a sequel to a long-running BBC program. The original series debuted in 2010 and features a crew of marine adventurers like a loyal polar bear, a daredevil cat, and kindly penguin medic. Together, they travel the seas in an octopus-shaped submarine, finding and rescuing at-risk sea creatures.

The new Netflix version continues a children’s television tradition of creating animal characters to explore the world. Octonauts relies on adventurous heroes  — pirate cats who travel the world to rescue other animals and plants caught in climate conflicts on land. Netflix has released the show in 19 languages and in 190 countries, and its viewership was among the top 10 children’s programs in 44 countries, including the US, UK, Australia, France, Spain, South Korea, Colombia, and the UAE.

Its popularity is helped by available Octonauts toys for adventures off screen.

The program, which is directed to 3- and 4-year-olds, has two competing objectives: to unpack the reality that the planet is changing but not to frighten the audience. “I don’t know of any other show about climate change for this age group,” said Polly Conway, the senior television editor at Common Sense Media, which reviews over 900 television programs for children.

Harriet Shugarman, director of ClimateMama, an organization aimed at helping parents communicate with their children about climate change, told the New York Times that it is children who are going to grow up and live through this transformational period in human history. “And parents don’t yet have enough data or education to have these conversations with their kids, especially little kids,” Shugarman noted. “Parents need help.”

Yonty Friesem, associate professor of civic media at Columbia College, Chicago, explains that the combination of education, media, and environmental understandings is called Eco-Media Literacy. “This is a developing field, thanks to the work of educators and scholars who combine the work of inquiry, evaluation, and production of media messages with environmental studies,” Friesem describes, “and how the challenges of climate change impact are reflected in the media.”

Story ideas are taken directly from the news, and scientists vet the accuracy of the information presented. Susannah Sandrin, a professor of environmental science at Arizona State University, and Natascha Crandall, an educational media consultant, ensure that episodes are scientifically sound and emotionally appropriate for preschoolers.

Some climate scientists wish that the Octonauts provided explanations about why the Earth is heating up due to burning of fossil fuels. Sara DeWitt, senior vice president and general manager of PBS Kids, told the New York Times that, historically, PBS has built its educational children’s shows around existing school curricula. But little consensus exists on the best way to teach the youngest children about the more powerful storms, wildfires, rising seas, and extreme heat and drought that will shape their lives.

Final Thoughts

There’s nothing more poignant than hearing a topic described through the lens of a little one. Let’s close with some post-climate change lesson plan comments from young students, as told to the Washington Post.

  • Ayla, a third grader dressed in jeans and tie-dye sneakers, said it made her want to “do something” about climate change because “I don’t want it to get so hot.”
  • Wes, another third grader, said adults could have done more to protect the environment. “I think they’ve done a medium job because they’re still producing a lot of carbon dioxide, and a lot of people are littering still.”
  • “I feel bad for the other animals because they don’t know about it, so they don’t know what to do,” added his classmate, Hunter.
  • Abby, who wore a “Girl Power” T-shirt, said it was up to humans to drive less and recycle and protect other species from climate disaster. “When I first found out we were going to learn about climate change in gym, I was like, that’s surprising, because normally we learn that in class,” Abby added. “But I’m glad we did it in gym,” she continued. “It was really fun.”

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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