While many teachers engage students in learning about global climate change, they often find students have difficulty relating to such an abstract and scientifically complex concept. To help students gain a better understanding, some teachers have found ways to make students aware of the climate change happening in their own communities.
“Trying to explain global climate change without relating it to where we are would just turn my kids off and have them tuned out,” asserts Kevin Newman. “Here in Frazer, Montana…it gets pretty interesting teaching about global climate change,” says Newman, who teaches at Frazer Public School. “The first time I did [so] was in the middle of record snowfall for the region. Then [the] next year, we had record flooding because of the sudden rise in [temperatures], so my kids saw firsthand how the climate is changing in extremes. We also set up a weather station and have it hooked up with NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and the National Weather Service. When you live 20 miles from anywhere on the plains, the weather can be very different [from] where we are compared to the closest other weather reporting station.”
In Brooklyn, New York, “we have…monitored the ambient air and water temperature of the East River,” says Janet Villas, high school science teacher and environmental action coordinator at Brooklyn Friends School. “We have noticed a distinct rise in temperature, especially the change from winter to spring coming earlier,” she notes. Her students’ response “has been to put more effort into local environmental issues. They created a school-wide ‘meatless Monday’ campaign and have changed the policies of the cafeteria staff,” she reports.
“We used to record dates that lakes were finally covered in ice, and then when the ice breaks up,” says Andrew Petto, senior lecturer in the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s Department of Biological Sciences. “Informally, on campus these days, I have students record the last day that students are observed wearing sandals or flip-flops in the fall and the first day that this footwear re-appears in the spring. Right now, we are seeing early [to] mid-November for ‘foot cover’ completion and late February [to] mid-March for uncovering...in Milwaukee!”
Stanley Rice, professor of biological sciences at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, Oklahoma, tells students in his general biology course for nonmajors “about my own study of trees in the town where the university is located…In Oklahoma, the buds of many tree species have been opening two days earlier each year in the spring since 2008, unlike the two days per decade found in most regions. I also explain the difference between weather and climate. Our hottest year was 2011, but for the world as a whole, it was 2010,” he reports.
“One important thing for students to understand when learning about climate is the difference between microclimate and macroclimate,” Frank Novakowski of Carol Stream, Illinois, points out. “Students are usually surprised to find out that the Pacific Ocean helps determine the climatic conditions in Illinois. They also find the idea that a mild winter or an unseasonably warm summer can’t simply be blamed on global warming, interesting.”
Kathryn Buckley, science curriculum coordinator and sixth-grade science teacher at Robert Adams Middle School in Holliston, Massachusetts, says her sixth graders “visit a certified vernal pool on school grounds and measure its depth and diameter four times during the year. They also monitor seasonal changes of meter square study sites. This data contributes to a study being conducted by Dr. Betsy Colburn, a Harvard ecologist who is looking at long-term changes to the water levels of the pool in response to several environmental factors. Students graph their data and compare it to that of past years, as well as to that of pools being measured by other schools, and look for trends in the data related to climate change.”
Brian Shmaefsky, biology professor and service learning coordinator at Lone Star College–Kingwood in Kingwood, Texas, says he assigns his two-year college and Early College High School environmental biology and environmental science students “semester projects in which they research regional contributors [to global climate change] using Environmental Protection Agency and [nongovernmental organization] web resources that monitor greenhouse gases for particular areas. The students then develop a community action plan for peers to investigate realistic ways in the community to reduce [global climate change].”
Rebecca Bell of Ligonier, Pennsylvania, a former environmental education coordinator with the Maryland Department of Education, recalls that “from 1997 [to] 2001 or 2002, the state agencies co-sponsored a youth summit consisting of teams of students from all [of] Maryland’s county school systems. In the morning, they attended information sessions given by experts in their field, and in the afternoon, they met with their county planning office’s official to discuss local impacts. The kids loved the format and especially liked having the contact with local people who could come to their classroom or [invited] kids [to] go to their offices. More than one internship was started this way.”
Examining Local Issues
“As I teach in the Chesapeake Bay region,…I relate the increased incidence of flooding that is going on to changes in sea level. This link has been reported in local newspapers, and it makes the issue of climate change very real to [students],” says Dean Goodwin, director of marine and environmental science at Christchurch School in Christchurch, Virginia. “Also, we are experiencing increased severity of storms, which we discuss [as] the potential link to climate change. For example, last April, a tornado devastated areas close to our school, causing much damage and three deaths.”
“I have watched students become fully engaged when they start to look at how climate change is affecting their New England region regarding maple sugar production, wheat crop production, trout and other fish, lake ice out dates, forest invasive species, such as the Woolly Adelgid—or for places they care about because they have traveled there, like coral reefs’ destruction and sea level rise for Florida, where Grandma and Grandpa live,” says Lise LeTellier, science department chair at Holyoke Catholic High School in Chicopee, Massachusetts. She recommends “that teachers show students all the data/graphs and let them analyze it themselves, so they are not told it is happening, but clearly see that it is happening and how it all began when we started using fossil fuels and increasing the carbon dioxide levels beyond what was ever known before.”
Then, she continues, “let them find out a variety of the implications of climate change, from social issues such as increased suicide rate in the Arctic regions, to maple sugar production. If you enable them to share this new knowledge with people outside their school, they see the value of reporting what is known in a clear way.”
Bell suggests teachers have students “examine current maps…to see predictions of what sea level rise would do” and explore issues such as “what will happen to migrating ducks,” the “increasing insurance rates or no availability of insurance for new construction in high-risk areas; [and] decreasing property values” in affected areas.
A topic of historical interest she and her students discussed “had to do with the disappearance of…islands in the Chesapeake [Bay] that were once inhabited and now are threatened or are gone. Should these islands be preserved? Who will pay for it? Further inland, the effects on shifting agriculture belts, an increased number of extreme weather events, and power outages are topics” teachers could introduce, she says. In addition, “the increased incidence of Lyme disease and West Nile virus bring up potential public health risks,” she observes.
“I think the addition of policy adds so much to the study,” Bell maintains, because “students can evaluate a number of mitigation policies” and “can design service learning/community projects so an action component is added. That avoid[s] the doom-and-gloom scenario that we do not want to present.”