How a program in Washington state is bringing climate change into the classroom

In some parts of the country, climate change may be the most
controversial subject that science teachers bring up in their
classrooms. “People oppose environmental things because they’re
like, ‘Oh, that’s just a bunch of hippie liberal
bullshit,’” said Tom St. Clair, a science teacher at Black
Hills High School near Olympia, Washington, who’s been working
lessons about the overheating planet into his curriculum for

But the majority of public school teachers don’t deal with
this, because they aren’t mentioning climate change at all. In
the United States, it’s up to individual schools or school
districts — and solitary teachers like St. Clair — to teach
students the science behind the greenhouse effect, sea-level rise,
and intensified weather events. But many kids graduate without any
formal education about a crisis that is already harming their
communities and fundamentally reshaping life on Earth. Fifty-five
percent of teachers in a national NPR/Ipsos
last year —55 percent — reported never talking about
climate change in their classrooms.

I spoke with St. Clair during a teacher training in October
hosted by his school district as part of ClimeTime, the first
statewide climate education initiative in the U.S. After 25 years
of teaching, St. Clair jumped at the chance to get together with
other teachers in his district to finally get some formal training
on strategies and materials for teaching the tricky subject.

There’s a host of reasons that educators shy away from the
subject. Some are intimidated by the complexity of climate science.
Many science teachers in the U.S. are
teaching subjects outside of their field of expertise
already have to catch up on the basics — never mind the nuanced
ways the changing climate might relate to their lesson plans. And
then there’s the perceived controversy around it: Teachers are
cautious of prompting angry calls from parents, despite polls
showing that 4 in 5 parents nationwide supporting their kids
learning about climate change. Others were concerned about
navigating students’ emotional reactions to learning about the
climate crisis.

To address this problem, in 2017 the Washington state
legislature passed a multi-million dollar budget proviso for K-12
science education with an emphasis on climate science. The result
was ClimeTime, which funds projects and events that connect public
school teachers with environmental organizations in their
communities, as well as teacher trainings like the one outside

At the end of its first year, an estimated 7,500 public school
teachers, mostly elementary school teachers — or just over 1 in
10 of the
approximately 66,400
public school teachers in Washington state
— had taken advantage of professional development resources made
available through ClimeTime. Now halfway through its second year,
and with $3 million in funding approved for the next couple of
years, the initiative’s leaders are thinking about how to improve
and refine its services to reach more educators, especially in
traditionally underserved communities, and get a better measure of
what lessons are reaching students.

Kids skipped school to
protest climate inaction in Seattle during the Global Climate
Strike in September 2019. Karen Ducey / Getty Images

Education isn’t a solution to the climate crisis in and of
itself. But educating people — especially young people, who
usually aren’t quite as entrenched in their beliefs as adults —
could be a crucial step. Recently, a group of scientists listed
“strengthening climate education and engagement” as a potential

social intervention
to slow the rise of global temperatures. In
an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the
scientists argued that a better-educated public could trigger a
political tipping point by voting for measures to slow or stop
greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s hard to imagine effectively addressing climate impacts
and climate change without a broad, deep, educational strategy,”
said Frank Niepold, the climate education coordinator at the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who has been
working as a partner with state administrators on the

“Other states are looking at Washington as they move forward
on this issue,” said Niepold.

Momentum is building around the world in support of climate
education. The U.N. Executive Secretary of climate change, Patricia
has said
that she hopes to see countries including climate
education in their action plans to meet the Paris Agreement. Mexico
and Italy both recently
to step up their educational efforts, and last month
New Zealand
rolled out
a comprehensive climate curriculum.

Many students learn what they know about the issue from the
news, not their teachers. “That’s part of the problem, we’re
not learning much about this in school,” high schooler Lily
the Spokesman-Review during a youth climate strike in
Spokane, a city in eastern Washington, in September.

Greta Thunberg, the Swedish 17-year-old named Time Magazine’s
2019 Person of the Year for striking from school every Friday to
demand that world leaders take action, has inspired millions of
young people around the world to protest. Better climate education
is one of their demands.

The push for climate education is coming from the bottom, not
the top, said Ellen Ebert, who coordinates the ClimeTime initiative
as the science, environment, and sustainability director at the
Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction. It’s a
sentiment I heard over and over from science teachers and
administrators: “Students are very curious about climate change,
they’re interested, they want to be talking about this in their

Greenhouse gas emissions have risen quickly in recent decades,
making what today’s teachers learned in school pretty out-of-date
— that is, if they learned about climate science at all. And new
research comes out all the time, so that even younger teachers
might need some help staying up-to-date with the latest findings.
Stacy Meyer, the science coordinator for southwest Washington, came
up with a pretty simple idea to bring teachers up to speed: Get
teachers and climate scientists in the same room.

Meyer started putting together professional development
sessions, dubbed “STEM Seminars,” where Washington public
school teachers have the chance to ask scientists questions
face-to-face. At the seminars, local climate researchers — many
affiliated with the University of Washington’s Climate Solutions
Lab, one of ClimeTime’s partners — give presentations to school
teachers on their area of expertise. The format caught on, and in
the first year of ClimeTime, seminars about how climate change
affects everything from agriculture to wildfires took place around
the state.

“Even though you’re learning at an adult level and you might
be teaching fifth grade,” Meyer explained, “it helps to
understand more deeply and then think about how you might translate
that for your classes.” The majority of educators who attended
STEM seminars reported feeling better equipped to teach their
students about the topic of the training, according to survey

A spotter keeps an eye on
a wildfire near Omak, Washington, in August 2015. Stephen Brashear
/ Getty Images

Even for educators who already know their stuff, ClimeTime
offers a chance to meet other science teachers, share lesson ideas,
and most importantly, get resources. After all, knowing a lot about
something isn’t the same as being able to teach it.

Jessica Hausman is the only science teacher at Oakville High
School in the small coastal city of Grays Harbor, Washington. Like
St. Clair, Hausman feels like she has a pretty good handle on
climate science, having studied earth sciences in college and
pursued a career in environmental policy before becoming a teacher.
“I’m looking for that extra support finding the strong sources
for education, and some tools,” Hausman told me at the training
event in October.

Specifically, she’s looking for examples of how the climate
crisis is harming her school’s community, and organizations doing
climate-related work that she can connect with. Hausman is finding
that this local focus helps make abstract, complex concepts —
like rising global temperatures — feel real for her students.

Hausman’s school is located in a region of western Washington
that’s predicted to receive more rainfall but less snowpack in
the coming years as a result of warming temperatures. As seasonal
weather patterns get disrupted, Hausman explains to her students,
the timing of fish runs changes, too. They quickly grasp the
implications for local industries like forestry and fishing.
“They’re hungry to learn about this stuff,” she said.

Before the training, Hausman had only had the chance to do a few
units on climate change, and was hoping to get resources from
ClimeTime to do more —especially around solutions. Her students
are quick to ask questions like, “Well, what can I do about

“I see their hope and optimism,” Hausman said, “and I want
to feed that in a responsible way.”

That’s another reason why ClimeTime’s leaders have
prioritized making teacher trainings specific to the local setting:
It’s a way to channel fear and worry about the crisis into
action. Since young people aren’t old enough to vote, there’s
not much they can do to exercise political clout, aside from

skipping school
. By introducing them to local nonprofit
organizations and sustainability-focused businesses, students see
ways they can get involved with solutions, professionally and

So far, no one has developed a neat, STEM Seminar-esque format
to equip teachers for the emotional and psychological strains of
teaching climate change. Administrators are hoping to address this
in future teacher trainings, and teachers are acutely aware that
discussing the imperiled future isn’t easy for students,

Many of the teachers I spoke with see it as their responsibility
to prepare students for a future shaped by climate change. But
it’s also just plain pragmatism.

Democratic presidential candidates like to point
that decarbonizing the economy will create a lot of
employment opportunities. And even if a sweeping Green New
Deal-style plan fails to materialize, people talking about
preparing the next generation for “green economy” jobs are onto
something — according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the
fastest-growing jobs
in the next decade will be wind turbine
technicians and solar installers.

“That’s what it’s all about,” said St. Clair, the
science teacher from Black Hills High School. “You want a job
someday? Learn something that relates to solutions to climate

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline
How a program in Washington state is bringing climate change into
the classroom
on Feb 11, 2020.

Source: FS – All – Science – News
How a program in Washington state is bringing climate change into the classroom