Teaching climate change — Sorting the facts from fiction

Posted May 15, 2019 by Karen Graham
When science teacher Diana Allen set out to teach climate change, a subject she'd never learned in school, she fell into a rabbit's hole of misinformation: Many resources presented online as educational material were actually junk.
Youth protests against the inaction of governments on climate change have gathered momentum as the U...
Youth protests against the inaction of governments on climate change have gathered momentum as the United Nations prepares for a major summit in September
"It is a pretty scary topic to take on," said Allen, a teacher at Sanford Junior High School, in southern Maine, reports the Associated Press. "There are some pretty tricky websites out there. You kind of have to be an expert to be able to see through that like, 'Oh, no, these guys aren't telling you the truth.'"
Well, sure, there are articles published by climate deniers and organizations that fund the fossil fuel industry that blatantly say that climate change is a myth made up to scare the masses. There are also countless other sites with misleading or outdated information.
However, like fake news stories, we have to be vigilant in learning to recognize what is the truth, according to scientists, and what is being made up. It takes diligence and time to research an article or lesson plan, simply to find out if it is worth teaching.
Educational institutions are facing stiff competition from online learning platforms.
Educational institutions are facing stiff competition from online learning platforms.
For example, the Heartland Institute, an Illinois-based group that dismisses climate change, in 2017 sent thousands of science teachers copies of a book titled “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming." The book totally misrepresented the consensus of scientists and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that global warming is real and man-made.
Another source of questionable information on climate change teaching materials is the Vancouver-Canada-based Fraser Institute, which counts the Charles Koch Foundation among its financial supporters. In their lesson plans, they claim that mainstream climate scientists have made selective use of data on climate change, saying “the issues are far from settled.”
Parents want climate change taught in schools
But today's teachers should be happy that over 80 percent of parents on both sides of the political divide want their children to be taught climate change.
This bit of information is based on the results of an exclusive new NPR/Ipsos poll: Whether they have children or not, two-thirds of Republicans and 9 in 10 Democrats agree that the subject needs to be taught in school.
A separate poll found that 86 percent of teachers wanted climate change to be a subject taught in school. So how do teachers tackle the task of teaching a subject that most young people are already quite well aware of?
There is a disconnect between the millions of students around the world who have marched en mass for our governments to do something about the environment and the poll. Most school districts have classroom standards that require that climate change be mentioned, while most teachers aren't actually talking about climate change in their classrooms.
The poll also found that less than half the parents polled even discussed climate change with their children. It seems like the world's biggest problem is staring us in the face, yet the default message from older generations to younger ones is silence.
There are legitimate teaching sources
To be fair, there are many lesson plans on different aspects of energy made available by petroleum companies, like ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell, among others. However, the lesson plans really don't address climate change, and this can be misleading, especially since they promote fossil fuels.
Charles Anderson, a professor of science education at Michigan State University says the oil industry while promoting new energy resources, pushed climate change to the back of the line. “The school systems of the country are so fragmented and under-resourced that they have no choice but to turn to people like the oil industry who offer them free stuff,” he said.
It looks like many teachers first try their own state teacher's organizations when looking for suitable material to teach climate science and climate change. Other teachers have turned to the National Center for Science Education, which posts free climate change lessons and has a ”scientist in the classroom ” program.
The Oakland, California-based National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is a not-for-profit group whose stated mission is to educate the press and the public on the scientific and educational aspects of controversies surrounding the teaching of evolution and climate change, and to provide information and resources to schools, parents, and other citizens working to keep those topics in public school science education.
One excellent source for lesson plans on climate change is the Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network or CLEAN Project. CLEAN has over 700 items in the CLEAN collection of lesson plans, suitable for grades K-12 and higher education needs.
One interesting class project, suitable for assessing any source, not just scientific, is called The Stink Test: Validating Resources. This learning activity provides a systematic and objective framework to enable students to develop skills to recognize whether a source of information is scientifically valid or not.
NASA, along with NOAA are also excellent sources of lesson plans for the classroom. NASA's Climate Kids brings climate science to life with fun games, interactive features, and exciting articles that cover everything from weather and climate to energy and water, to name just a few of the subjects.
Climate Change Lessons: JPL Education is a group of lesson plans designed for K-12 students and is aligned with Next Generation Science and Common Core Math Standards (STEM) and incorporates NASA missions and science along with current events and research.
NOAA offers its National Climate Assessment Teaching Resources website. The site offers a wealth of actionable science about the causes, effects, risks and possible responses to human-caused climate change, even going so far as to break the country into regions so the information is more relevant to the students.
The bottom line for educators looking online for legitimate teaching materials is to check well-known and public sources, like the National Science Foundation, NOAA, NASA, and CLEAN. The real thing is out there - it just means you have to sift through the trash.