In the U.S., climate change is not a standard part of the public school curriculum in many districts due to a lack of resources, lack of teacher background knowledge, and forces that push against this type of education.
By: Iris Crawford, GSV Editor & former Research Assistant at MIT ESI
Featuring guest expert Dr. Liz Potter-Nelson, Postdoctoral Associate at MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative
American teachers and parents want climate change to be taught in the classroom. According to a 2019 IPSOS/NPR survey, 86% of K-12 teachers and 84% of parents of kids under age 18 believe that climate change should be taught in schools.
Yet despite this support, climate change usually receives little to no dedicated time in the classroom. One survey of 1,500 middle and high school instructors, for example, found that teachers only dedicate about one to two hours to the subject across an entire academic year.
And this has clear impacts: in one of, if not the, largest survey of middle and high school science teachers about climate education conducted in 2016, researchers found that the majority were unclear about whether there’s scientific consensus about if global warming is caused by humans. One in five instructors chalked global warming up to natural changes in the environment or said that they either didn’t believe it was happening or weren’t sure of the causes.
Lack of Training
There are myriad reasons why climate education is not being covered in US schools, says Dr. Liz Potter-Nelson, former high school chemistry and physics teacher who now is a postdoctoral associate at MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative researching environmental and sustainability education. One of the biggest reasons is that teachers aren’t adequately educated about it themselves—less than half receive any formal instruction about climate science in college, and they often don’t have the time, resources, or support to make climate change a meaningful part of their instructional practice, she says.
The situation has also potentially worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic as waves of teachers quit their jobs, leaving vacancies often filled by provisionally licensed instructors who have even less subject matter training than typical science teachers.
It’s the State’s Choice
Why is this? The US doesn’t have nationally adopted science standards, which dictates what schools have to teach. These decisions are made at the state level and these standards vary widely.
In 2013, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were released, which include the teaching of fundamental ideas that give students the opportunity to engage in learning about earth and human activity, human impacts on earth systems, global climate change and more. As of April 2022, 20 states and the District of Columbia have officially adopted the NGSS into their curriculums, representing 36% of all students in the US. Twenty-four states have adopted their own standards based on recommendations from the NGSS framework, but in some states these standards include instruction on weather and environmental variance but do not draw a direct link between fossil fuel emissions and global warming. For an overview of which states have adopted which standards and what that means for climate education, see the 2020 report card by the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Education Fund.
The NGSS framework is a step in the right direction, Potter-Nelson says, but simply having standards isn’t enough, especially when they’re pitted against misinformation about climate and powerful interests influencing education agendas.
According to a reporting project by Oklahoma NPR stations, over the past two decades, the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board has spent close to $40 million on producing education materials that are pro-fossil fuel industry.
Oil and gas companies also produce their own climate education materials, which have been widely criticized for downplaying the impact of carbon emissions. Teacher workshops provided by the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Program and Arkansas Energy Rocks, and children’s books like Petro Pete are just some of the ways in which the fossil fuel industry has shaped the way climate issues are addressed in many K-12 classrooms. In fact, education journalist Katie Worth found fossil fuel-funded education programs being used in at least 18 different U.S. states.
Pushing for change
Organizations like the National Science Teaching Association are pushing to bring climate education to schools and has its own position on teaching climate science. Efforts out of MIT (including the SCALES resource, TILclimate podcast educator guides, and CATE climate curriculum), Washington University, and Open Sci Ed are also working to make such education more accessible and equitable, and there’s momentum toward improving climate education for teachers. There’s also action happening on the state level. In 2020, New Jersey became the first state to require climate education as part of its public education curriculum.
Pushing for better climate education often starts locally, Potter-Nelson says. “I don’t think that [high school students] necessarily realize how much sway and power they have in advocating for things, especially at the school board level,” she says, adding that because local school boards have the power to make hiring and curriculum decisions, getting these concerns in front of them is the first step in bolstering climate change education. “Opening up that conversation connects theory to practice,” she says.
This story was originally written and published for the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative Climate Portal.