To teach climate change, let data speak for itself

by Gayle Simidian

On Board Online • September 4, 2017

By Gayle Simidian
Research Analyst

Climate change is one hot topic - no pun intended.

Surveys suggest that one's belief about climate change often corresponds to one's political affiliation. A 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found that less than 10 percent of conservative Republicans think climate science is based on sound research "most of the time," compared to more than 50 percent of liberal Democrats.

When people of different political stripes disagree over the issue of climate change, what does that mean for science teachers? A new NYSSBA report, "When Politics Enters the Classroom: Teaching Climate Change in Schools," says teachers should focus on data, evidence and critical thinking.

The report comes as schools in New York transition to new science standards which require instruction in climate change. One of the "key ideas" in current standards, approved in 1996, is that "Human decisions have had a profound impact on the physical and living environment" but new standards that will be introduced in all grades this school year consider "global climate change" to be a "core idea" and state: "Human activities . are major factors in the current rise in Earth's mean surface temperature (global warming)."

NYSSBA's report offers several suggestions for school boards on how best to address this politically-charged topic and provides examples of best practices in teaching.

For example, Judy Selig, a biology and chemistry high school teacher in the Ballston Spa school district, focuses on "evidence and interpretation of evidence." It's up to the students to "choose to accept the evidence and interpretation or not," she says.

Selig's students developed climate action plans, which are blueprints that help them define and carry out activities in their school district that reduce their carbon footprint. The students learned how to write a climate action plan during a Youth Climate Summit held in May 2017. Ballston Spa school staff received help from The Wild Center, a nature preserve, in Tupper Lake to design the summit.

Shannon Bartholomew, a high school science teacher in the Saranac Lake school district, has had students who scoff at climate change. "I tell them that climate change is not a religion, I am not asking them to have faith just because I say it's happening, but to look at the data critically and draw their own conclusions." Any hesitation Bartholomew encounters from students about the topic is, she says, usually "from conservative news organizations, almost word for word."

Bartholomew's students took their climate change learning to the school board. They presented the Saranac Lake Board of Education with a cost/benefit analysis of using solar energy which can save the district about $54,000 per year.

In addition to providing examples of climate change instruction, NYSSBA's research report cites incidents of interest groups and state lawmakers throughout the nation trying to influence how climate change is taught in schools. The Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank, says it has mailed 300,000 copies of its book, Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming, to K-12 teachers in United States.

Believers in climate change have "failed to refute the null hypothesis that currently observed changes in global climate indices and the physical environment are the result of natural variability," according to Heartland's website.

Lawmakers in other states have proposed "academic freedom" bills that promote the teaching of science as "two-sided" issues rather than as fact.

The report found that instruction on climate change is hindered by many factors, including insufficient coursework on the topic in teacher education programs and a lack of updated textbook content.

To read the full report go to www.nyssba.org .


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