Two-Thirds of America’s Science Teachers Are Misinformed About Climate Science

The first nationwide survey of middle and high school teachers found that they spend one or two hours a year teaching the subject.

Sixth graders observe a science experiment in Wellsville, New York. (Photo: Getty Images)

Feb 11, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

A nationwide survey of 1,500 middle school and high school science teachers released Thursday found that nearly two-thirds of educators are not relying on scientifically sound information when teaching students about climate change.

Researchers determined that teachers spend only about one or two hours over the course of the school year on climate change, and the information they give students is often contradictory or wrong.

For example, one of every three middle and high school teachers surveyed said that he or she emphasized that “global warming is likely due to natural causes.” Yet 97 percent of climate scientists say overwhelming evidence shows that global warming is a result of the burning of fossil fuels.

Only 30 percent of middle school teachers and 45 percent of high school science teachers know that a scientific consensus on climate change even exists, according to the survey, which was published in the journal Science.

RELATED: The 97 Percent Scientific Consensus on Climate Change Is Wrong—It’s Even Higher

Eric Plutzer, a political scientist at Pennsylvania State University and lead author of the study, said the findings show a lack of awareness about climate change at an administrative level.

“Ideally, colleges that educate large numbers of science teachers would develop curricula that would ensure all future teachers receive foundational instruction in climate science,” Plutzer said.

Fewer than half of teachers surveyed said they received any formal instruction on climate change science in college, but two-thirds of teachers said they would be interested in continuing education “entirely focused on climate change.”

That might help them teach some of the more complex issues surrounding global warming, such as how climate modeling works.

Even then, time becomes an issue.

Plutzer said many state science standards don’t test students’ knowledge of climate science, and the class where climate change is often most taught—earth science—is typically skipped by ambitious students electing to take Advanced Placement biology and chemistry classes.

“If you’re teaching in a district that’s not going to be testing on global warming, there’s a low priority on getting that right,” Plutzer said. “Teachers often focus on topics they know their students are going to be tested.”

Plutzer said spending one to two hours a year on climate science is not enough to give students even an introduction to climate change’s causes and consequences.

“It is especially insufficient if there are no clear standards that help teachers sequence these topics,” he said.

The researchers said teachers’ political and ideological preferences also influence how they explain climate change.

One survey question asked teachers if they agreed with the statement “It’s not the government’s business to protect people from themselves.” Researchers found that teachers who answered that they “strongly agree” were more willing to teach “both sides” of the climate debate.

So is the misrepresentation and polarization of climate science in the classroom similar to controversies over the teaching of evolution? Not exactly.

“There are some similarities, but there is one important difference,” Plutzer said. “Teachers who do not accept evolution all know the scientific consensus exists—they can explain the process of natural selection and know this is the dominant view. Some teachers reject evolution in spite of knowing quite a bit about it. Here, we see the opposite pattern—many teachers accept that the burning of fossil fuels accounts for recent global warming but are not certain that all scientists agree with them.”

Plutzer and his colleagues next plan to dig into the data to see how individual states and school districts are teaching climate science.