Climate Change Education: Forecasting a Shift from Perception to Reality

4 Dec. 2021

Trail in nature

From hurricanes to forest fires, climate change has inflicted numerous destructive natural disasters on communities throughout the world, putting global security at risk. In an effort to reduce and adapt to the impact of climate change, organizations in the United States like The Nature Conservancy have been actively creating materials, initiatives, and research programs to educate the public. However, because many of these programs and initiatives take several decades to complete, younger generations have become a focal point for these organizations. For them, their goal to protect the future of the world and its environment rests largely, then, with those who have the smallest of hands: children. 

Because climate change is a heated and controversial topic, sources like magazines, blogs, and social media have been the main players reporting information that isn’t always correct. The result then is the possibility of the rapid spread of confusion, biases, and misconceptions. William Anderegg, an Associate Professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah, notes that this can be seen by the “substantial doubt [within the American public] about both the anthropogenic cause and the level of scientific agreement” regarding human-caused climate change, even though there is “striking agreement among climate scientists” on this topic (Anderegg et al. 1-3). Children especially can become overwhelmed by all the information conveyed since many have easy access to unreliable sources like the Internet, which can skew their perception of climate change far from its reality (Boyes et al. 542). So it becomes clear that students should be provided with formal education that is reliable and controlled through sources like teachers regarding the climate crisis. For this reason, climate change should be considered for the public K-12 school curriculum in the United States to ensure that students develop a deep comprehension of climate change and, as a result, become active participants in global matters.

Assessing the current situation of climate education can help outline the potential and direction of such instruction for schools and students. Martha C. Monroe, professor in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida who works on understanding how people perceive environmental issues, notes how information about climate change is predominantly rooted in the secondary earth science curriculum and explores topics such as weather and oceanography (Monroe et al. 4). However, by examining NOAA’s Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network, an organization that plays a major role in sharing high-quality resources with educators, she notices that most of the material available to teachers focuses solely on the scientific aspect of climate change rather than the way it is closely connected to students’ lives, making it more difficult for students to fully comprehend what they learn (Monroe et al. 5). This can result in a misunderstanding of climate change, as demonstrated by the 54% of middle school students in Pennsylvania, surveyed by James Rye, professor of Science Education at West Virginia University, who believed that the ozone hole is a “major or predominant cause” of global warming, a similar confusion of topics occurring among students in West Virginia (Meadows and Wiesenmayer 236; Rye et al. 538). 

Although certain misconceptions like these can form in school, many individuals recognize the multitude of potential benefits that well-informed climate change education has for students. A survey conducted by Sarah Wise, a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Developmental Biology and a STEM Departmental Change Agent at the University of Colorado, demonstrates that of nearly 630 secondary science teachers in Colorado, over 90% responded that students should learn about global warming as well as individual and social solutions to it in school (301). The support for climate change education is recognized on a national scale as well, with thirteen U.S. government agencies endorsing the publication of a guide to help spread climate literacy throughout schools (USGCRP 18). This enthusiasm for the creation of climate change education systems highlights that there is a need and desire for proper education on this topic. Just as American historian, intellectual, and critic Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. finds that being able to “take part in…and experience the precariousness of decision…may help toward a better understanding of the historical process,” students actively participating in studying and making personal connections with climate change is a key step toward making education about this complex concept as effective as possible (348).

Because climate change is quite a complicated topic, the crafting of climate change lessons requires careful consideration and planning. To prevent students from forming common misconceptions, evaluating the students’ current understanding of climate change as well as their level of cognitive development is an important first course of action (Meadows and Wiesenmayer 238). This can be especially helpful for students with misunderstandings regarding climate change, as the teachers can assess and help break down these preconceptions by educating them with correct information. After recognizing what needs to be addressed in terms of their students’ understanding of climate change, teachers can frame climate change concepts they are teaching in the context that best applies to what the students have already been learning in their science courses. The implementation of this method, through projects such as the construction of physical models of the hydrologic cycle to demonstrate its connection to extreme weather events, proved effective in a course taught by Julie L. Lambert, professor of Science Education at Florida Atlantic University, as no students felt “disengaged” during the lessons, as opposed to the 41% of Generation X that feel “disengaged” from climate change (1016). Since several misconceptions about climate change persist through high school and even to adulthood as a result of the child’s own logic and cognitive bias, this method of teaching should be implemented as early as formal education begins in kindergarten (Boyes et al. 556). In doing so, children would be able to dispel any false beliefs about climate change they may already have with the guidance of experienced teachers.

Having established a clear understanding of what their students need to learn, teachers can then outline their classes with science-based, factually proven data to provide the most accurate information. Teachers who have backgrounds in environmental science or climate change would have the expertise to create well-informed lectures, but even teachers who do not have as much knowledge about these disciplines can do so by working with climate change experts. Many middle school science teachers in the United States, investigated by Peggy M. McNeal, Ph.D. in Geoscience Education, have already started collaborating with climate scientists and professional researchers (105). These partnerships have grown into professional conferences and programs, allowing teachers to gain access to credible information and better understanding of the concept of climate change as a whole. With this valuable information, teachers have a variety of ways to engage their students with climate change, including constructing their own lessons with methods of scientific inquiry as well as establishing conversations between students and scientists on real research sites in places as far as Antarctica, allowing for flexibility and widespread implementation (Lambert and Bleicher 1015; McNeal and Petcovic 105). Working with professionals in the field, climate scientists, and university-level researchers ensures that teachers and students learn correct information about climate change and can remain engaged in some of the most pressing matters that face our society.

It is possible, though, that teachers could only present one perspective regarding climate change to their students. Especially given that Aaron M. McCright and Riley E. Dunlap, professors of Sociology with specializations in Environmental Sociology at Lyman Briggs College and Oklahoma State University respectively, have found that gender, political ideology, and race can predict opinions about climate change better than knowledge, this may raise concerns for certain individuals (1163, 1171). For instance, a one-sided presentation of information can lead to students unknowingly supporting politically driven arguments or missing out on learning to make decisions for themselves, even if this was not the teacher’s intention (Fortner 27). To help ensure that what the students learn is driven by science and is factually correct, teachers should be encouraged to directly share the opportunities they obtain from climate change experts with their students.

Allowing students to then make their own observations and draw their own conclusions invites various points of view on issues and encourages the students to be aware of what they are learning. This can be achieved by introducing students to real life local impacts of climate change, such as shifting harvest times, or by immersing students in virtual environments that are affected by climate change, like an underwater environment to observe ocean acidification. In the case of virtual field trips, various studies by David Markowitz, Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, have revealed that participants demonstrate a positive gain in knowledge and interest regarding climate change after engaging in this method of observation and learning (16). Professor S. Shyam Sundar of Media Effects at Penn State University helps explain that this change in one’s thinking results from the idea that increased interaction requires increased deliberation and concentration on one’s actions, a development that in-person and virtual experiences enable people to do (Dublon and Paradiso 10, 11; 14). Because students are more actively comprehending what they are learning and witnessing, they will not only gain a deeper understanding of climate change but will also be able to form their own perspectives on the issues they study.

Along with these benefits, making independent, well-informed decisions helps boost the development of a student’s mind academically and personally. After teaching K-8 students about climate change through a carefully developed methods course, Julie Lambert and Robert Bleicher found the lessons “nurtured their analytical skills and enabled them to differentiate scientific evidence from opinions” (1016). This skill of being able to identify what is credible and what may be more biased is important because it helps students see that “the scientific process is important and is an integral part of everything [they] do” as well as decreases the chance that they are misled by false information (Lambert and Bleicher 1016). Coupled with the observations that students are able to make, knowing that they have the ability to make meaningful conclusions empowers them. Nathaniel Geiger, Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Penn State University, demonstrates that learning about climate change in knowledge-based environments and activities increases students’ sense of self-efficacy, or their perceived ability to discuss and create an impact on climate change (Geiger et al. 114). This creates a healthy, beneficial cycle because as students learn about climate change, they begin to view themselves as more capable individuals with valid and important ideas, which in turn inspires them to continue engaging in climate change discussions and thus personal development.

The increased self-efficacy that students experience as a result of actively examining climate change topics has a ripple effect, inspiring change and new ideas among the larger society. Studying a group of 848 high school students on the West coast, Jana Meinhold and Amy Malkus, Associate Professors of Child and Family Studies and Early Childhood Educations respectively, discovered that environmentally friendly attitudes and self-efficacy correlate strongly with the actual actions one takes to bring about positive environmental change (529). This has numerous beneficial effects, one of the most notable being youth activism. Climate activism can come in many forms, but ensuring that children have—and believe that they have—the necessary education, confidence, and voice to participate in youth activism is essential to produce the most effective, helpful form of social change, all of which trace back to the information and method through which they learned (O’Brien et al.). Students that are actively advocating for climate change mitigation have the ability to not only change the mindsets of others their age but also those of people across generations. A study conducted by Danielle Lawson, Assistant Professor of Science Education at Penn State University, demonstrates that middle school children in North Carolina were able to significantly raise the level of concern their parents had for climate change, even causing the parents with the lowest levels of concern before the intervention to have the highest levels afterward (Lawson et al. 458). With confidence in one’s knowledge and thoughts, then, students can bring positive change among society by raising awareness about the reality of climate change and inspiring action to be taken.

With issues such as rising sea levels growing in urgency with each of the ocean’s waves, educating children about climate change in public K-12 schools emerges as a promising part of the solution to the crisis. Formal education through teachers is a feasible yet effective method in providing students with the necessary education, skillset, and confidence to create social change because it can provide lessons that are more tailored to each specific student, immersing them in climate change topics that complement their level of development. This style of learning invites a more controlled, reliable source of information for children as compared to other ways like popular media. By following a certain method of preparing their classes, gathering information, and presenting their resources to their students, teachers can effectively assess their students’ current knowledge, work with credible experts in the field, and allow students to make observations and conclusions on their own. Not only does this reduce the chances that students are taught inaccurate information, but it also helps them turn their perceived ability to fight climate change into a reality.


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