Forget Reading and Writing—Today’s Hot New Class Is Climate Change

National standards are being developed to teach school kids about the warming of the planet.

As U.S. schoolchildren are about to learn, forests act as atmosphere cleaners, scrubbing dangerous gases from the air. That's why deforestation, as seen here in the Amazon, is a definite planetary no-no. (Photo: Stain Bergeland/Reuters)

Mar 7, 2013· 2 MIN READ
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison Fairbrother has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

First gaming, now school curriculum—the fight to seed climate truth is spreading to newer and newer platforms.

Just days after former Vice President Al Gore announced Reality Drop, a game designed to stop climate change deniers in their anti-science tracks, a new national standard that makes climate change education part of the official public school curriculum has been announced.

When the Next Generation Science Standards are officially released later this month, they could go a long way toward fighting climate skepticism and the conservative machine that has poured millions into promoting climate denial in classrooms, institutes, and newspapers across the country.

The Next Generation Science Standards encourage public school teachers to start early. By fifth grade, students must understand that the planet is warming. By the time a student finishes elementary school, he or she should be thinking about human impacts on the environment, as well as solutions and responses. In middle school, the standards recommend that students learn more about physics and basic chemistry, and how the burning of fossil fuels contributes to global warming.

“All the standards are based on developmental research about what kids can learn at certain age levels,” says Mark McCaffrey, programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that defends the teaching of climate change and evolution in science classrooms.

Perhaps most importantly, the standards focus on human impacts.

“Students are looking not only at climate change, but at the fact that human beings are a force of nature. Things like the fact that we erode more soil than all natural processes combined, and we fix more nitrogen than all the bacteria on the planet,” McCaffrey said in an interview with TakePart.

Twenty-six different states were partners in the development of these new standards, along with the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the nonprofit Achieve.

When the final version is released later this month, 26 partner states are expected to implement the standards immediately. Fifteen other states have indicated possible interest in adopting them, according to InsideClimate News.

Experts are hopeful that these codified federal guidelines will add credibility to instruction that some teachers have begun on their own, as well as encourage teachers in other classrooms to feel comfortable with climate instruction.

“What we’ve seen through our work at the National Center for Science Education is that teachers are often nervous or afraid to talk about climate change. They are afraid of administration coming down on them, or of students bringing in climate denialist materials,” said Dr. Minda Berbeco, a colleague of McCaffrey’s. “Some teachers have even been known to harass other teachers that try to teach climate science.”

If there is undue pressure on teachers, it may be because global warming has not been an easy sell among other groups of adults responsible for molding young minds.

An informal survey of the National Earth Science Teachers Association in 2011 found that teaching climate change elicited protests from parents and school administrators more than the teaching of any other subject, with the exception of evolution.

One thing’s for sure: Climate change is too often dismissed by adults, and part of the blame lies with the media.

In 2012, despite a year of historic extreme weather events and record-shattering heatwaves, broadcast coverage of climate change was minimal, according to Media Matters.

In 2013, the news has not been better. The New York Times cut its environmental desk last month and recently eliminated its green blog, which reported more than 5,000 stories about climate change and the environment since 2009.

The bright spot is that while 90 percent of Americans feel they are not well informed about climate change, 75 percent of them would like to learn more.

“The Next Generation Science Standards will ideally extend from classrooms to informal education venues, like zoos and science centers, which kids don’t visit on their own,” said Berbeco. “We’re hopeful that the standards will impact whole communities. Anything kids learn in school they bring home with them.”

Are you a parent? If so, are you comfortable with your child learning about climate change in school? Let us know in the COMMENTS.