In 2020, the state of New Jersey mandated climate change be part of its school curriculum, from kindergarten forward. In 2022, Connecticut followed suit. Now, California, Oregon, and New York are considering similar measures. These states are at the vanguard of a growing trend across the United States, as educators acknowledge the need to prepare young people for the future.
The Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965 explicitly forbids the creation of a national curriculum of science standards, leaving it up to individual states to decide what to teach children. Many of them follow the Next Generation Science Standards, an initiative developed in 2013 by 26 states and multiple science organizations to improve science learning. Michael Wysession, a professor of Earth and Planetary Science at Washington University in St. Louis, who chaired the Earth and Space Science guidance in the writing of the NGSS, says that each state has to decide for itself whether to adopt or adapt the Next Generation standards.
Currently, 20 states, as well as Washington, DC, have adopted these standards verbatim. An additional 25 states have made some changes to the standards in their own curriculum, though most of them retained the substantial climate science in the standards, Wysession says. The five states that neither adopted nor adapted the standards were Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Ohio.
Importantly, the scientific consensus is based on facts, and leading scientific societies agree that fossil-fuel-driven warming of the Earth and its oceans is changing our climate. “It is of fundamental importance to curriculum,” Wysession says. “Teaching earth science and not focusing on climate would be like teaching about chemistry and not saying anything about atoms, or teaching about physics and not mentioning forces.”
Climate change also applies directly to students’ lives. Students who live on the coast, for example, benefit from knowing that as global temperatures increase, glaciers and ice caps melt, causing sea levels to rise. This can cause flooding and erosion of the coasts, which can cause displacement and property damage. Severe weather events, like hurricanes, floods, droughts, and heat waves, can disrupt food systems and ways of living. Droughts in areas like California and Nevada can lead to water shortages. Climate change can also increase health risks, such as respiratory disease, heat stroke, and zoonotic illness.
Donna Paul, a Montessori teacher, believes that students should be introduced to ideas of climate change in elementary school. “In this day and age, kids are more aware of the world’s problems than ever before,” she says. “They see it on social media, in the news, and in their own communities.”
Paul recommends instituting basic curriculum changes to incorporate climate change into different subject areas. “It can be done by including reading comprehension passages related to climate change, math word problems that touch on climate change, and incorporating climate change into science lessons with experiments, research, and field trips.”
Jen Rafferty, who was a public school music teacher for 15 years in New York and now advocates for reducing burnout in education, says educators “often get caught in the crossfire of political discourse.” “In an effort to keep politics out of the classroom,” she says, “I have observed some school leaders ask teachers to avoid talking about controversial issues.” However, children need to be taught emotional skills to have difficult conversations that promote their overall well-being.
Some teachers and parents do not support teaching climate change to children, arguing that children should be able to “make up their own mind.” This hews closely to the idea of “teaching the controversy,” an idea that Wysession calls “a Trojan horse tactic by anti-science or pseudo-science organizations to try to force schools to teach non-science views.” The idea first came about to promote “the false ideas of creationism and intelligent design into biology classes, as a foil to evolution, but has since expanded into misinformation about climate science.”
In fact, the majority of US Americans agree that climate change should be taught in schools, including every county in Oregon, which is considering the legal mandate for teaching climate change in public schools, according to the Yale Climate Opinion Map. The national average of adults who believe the problems and solutions of climate change should be taught in schools is 77 percent.
California exemplifies curriculum integration, Wysession says. In most of US high school classes, biology, chemistry, and physics are required, while earth and space science are often neglected. In California, however, earth and space science are built into the three core courses. Students are asked “How old is your body?,” a question that opens a discussion about the hydrogen atoms formed in the Big Bang and makes studying carbon isotopes more interesting and applicable. California is now considering legally mandating the teaching of climate science in schools.
Judi Nelson is a California resident, mother, and regenerative farmer who thinks climate change should definitely be taught in schools. “Our children are going to have to deal with the fallout of more than a century of extractive manufacturing and fossil fuel powered pollution and a slightly shorter history of industrial agriculture and should be taught the science and technology skills to confront it,” Nelson says. “It is important that they also delve into the psychology around climate change, at an age-appropriate level, and are given support to deal with their fears about how this might affect their futures.” Nelson went on to explain that solutions–like regenerative farming, renewable energy, and composting–help children confront challenges.
Radhika Iyengar is the director of the education sector at Columbia Climate School’s Center for Sustainable Development and parent to a 6-year-old and 11-year-old who both attend public schools in New Jersey. She thinks that integrative education remains essential to well-rounded students and that “there is no liberty to have beliefs or no beliefs” when it comes to climate change and sustainability; there are only the facts.
“Having that teacher support and having that sense of curriculum design and other things that teachers need is really important,” Iyengar says. Integrating sustainability into art, poetry, music, and English classes can produce positive results for students who relate to the material in that way. Additionally, Iyengar supports the idea of starting in kindergarten, which New Jersey is implementing, because it can reduce the number of negative feelings, such as eco-anxiety, felt by students as they grow older. “That sense of agency and that sense of connectedness to nature can be nurtured from the beginning,” she says.
In a UNESCO global study of 58,000 teachers, 95 percent surveyed felt that teaching the severity of climate change was important, though less than 40 percent are confident about teaching it. If not officially taught about climate change, “children will go on YouTube, and that can do damage,” Iyengar says. “It’s so much easier if the teacher sieves out the information.” Funding for training programs to ensure teachers have the right tools is essential. The Columbia Climate School, for example, offers professional development courses in climate change, many of them free of charge.
Parents can play a defining role in the progression of climate education in the classroom, as they can communicate with teachers, lawmakers, and administrators and advocate for curriculum change. This will prevent the “self-study” that can happen on the internet and social media sites. Iyengar adds, “I think it is our responsibility to have climate education as a part of the curriculum, so that students learn what is needed for their uncertain future.”
Micah Hahn, an associate professor of environmental health at the University of Alaska Anchorage, advocates for the importance of climate and health literacy for all people, in school or out. “No matter what profession you decide to go into, climate change will have some role in it, and understanding that can actually make you better at your job,” Hahn says. Building houses, for example, requires thinking about the weather events that may occur: Is it a wildfire prone area, like in California? Are the temperatures rising, like in Alaska? In the next 10 years, will this area be a floodplain? “I think students should be exposed to it early on, as young as [when] they are reading books,” Hahn says.
States that are not considering legislation still may have to comply with the NGSS or have implemented very minimal changes to those standards. That’s because earth science questions will now appear on standardized tests, making it essential for those ideas to be taught in classrooms. Nevertheless, the trend faces some challenges. Some states, teachers, and parents have been slow to accept the necessity of climate change studies. And even if most people do agree with teaching climate change to kids, many teachers feel underequipped to teach it. Policy changes and funding can ensure that all students have access to comprehensive, integrative climate education.
“Climate is the study of the connection of all Earth’s surface systems,” Wysession says. “It’s the ocean and the atmosphere and the land and the biomass; it’s marine life, radiation physics, atmospheric chemistry, and Earth’s surface energy budget, all driven by the reflection and absorption of sunlight. We have a long way to go, but it is remarkable to see states begin to change by incorporating more climate science into curriculum.”
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