Research Summary

A Role for Environmental Education in Climate Change for Secondary Science Educators

Environmental Educators Should Help Develop Climate Change Teaching Resources

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

Climate change is one of the most divisive and controversial issues of our time, yet the authors of this study propose that secondary science teachers should incorporate it into their curricula. The authors contend that the topic easily lends itself to conversations on the nature of science, hands-on activities in data analysis, and development of critical thinking skills, among other important lessons. Additionally, the authors suggest that environmental educators and researchers are uniquely prepared to help secondary science teachers with developing resources for teaching about climate change.

Given that environmental educators could make substantial contributions to the development of climate change curricula, the authors developed and implemented a needs assessment study to understand (1) whether secondary teachers are willing to include climate change in their lessons, (2) if they feel comfortable with their current level of knowledge on the topic, and (3) which resources and strategies would be most helpful for them in teaching climate change lessons.

To collect their data, the authors focused specifically on the southeastern United States and sent out a survey to middle- and high-school science teachers. The survey, which included several open-ended items and 25 closed-ended items, was completed by 746 teachers. Among other topics, the survey asked the teachers about whether they already included climate change in their curriculum, and what they perceived to be the best strategies for teaching about controversial topics. Additionally, the survey asked them to rate the usefulness of different teaching resources.

Based on the survey results, 77% of these middle- and high-school science teachers reported that they already include climate change in their curriculum and were willing to continue doing so. However, whether they cover it and how they do so varied significantly by the teacher’s subject. For instance, biology, earth science, and marine science teachers tended to cover climate change using the format of a week-long lesson. Ecology and earth science teachers generally reported teaching climate change for longer periods. On the other hand, teachers of physics, physical science, chemistry, and agriculture tended not to teach climate change at all, citing reasons such as lack of cohesion with state standards or not enough scientific evidence for climate change.

In terms of understanding and comfort levels, only 2% said they have “little understanding,” yet only 24% said they have a “detailed understanding;” the majority claim a “moderate understanding.” As above, there is a difference across subject areas in comfort with teaching climate change: biology and environmental science teachers feel significantly more comfortable with it than agriculture educators.

The strategies teachers rated as most appropriate for teaching about climate change were to “explain scientific uncertainty, present the rationale for how people interpret climate change differently, discuss advantages and disadvantages of climate related policies, and discuss the history of climate change science.” Most teachers were interested in the goals of “connecting science to everyday life” and “emphasizing critical thinking.” The educational resources teachers ranked most useful were student action projects, hands-on activities, and lab work, with data sets, videos, and pictures following close behind. In terms of the scope of climate change education, most teachers are interested in teaching about its effect on the world as a whole.

The ways in which climate change affects us, and the ways in which we might combat it, are extremely interdisciplinary. The diversity of perspectives on climate change also means that careful thought and preparation must go into planning curriculum. As the authors put it, “environmental educators—who have been working through the sticky, wicked, fuzzy, and interdisciplinary issues of hazardous waste, environmental justice, [and] nuclear energy . . .—are well prepared to address these challenges.”

The authors conclude that many life science and environmental science teachers are willing to include climate change in their curricula, especially as a way for students to develop the skills of critical thinking and synthesizing multiple perspectives. Moving forward, environmental educators and researchers should help develop climate change teaching resources because of the experience that they have in working with diverse perspectives and backgrounds, as well as working in controversial and cross-disciplinary fields.

The Bottom Line

Despite the previous taboo on teaching about climate change in schools, teachers are willing and interested in incorporating it into their curriculum because of the important skills that it can help students develop. Although there are many organizations and agencies developing these resources to help teachers, environmental educators are uniquely positioned to add their input because of their knowledge and experience in working with controversial, interdisciplinary issues. The results of this survey can be used to guide environmental educators in developing strategies, goals, and activities related to climate change that will be useful to teachers.