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Diversity and Equity

Climate Change Education: A Model of Justice-Oriented STEM Education

In recent years the connection between social justice and the natural sciences, math, and engineering has become more apparent. We have seen how marginalized peoples—women; low-income people; and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)—are disproportionally burdened by the disparities created by impacts of global phenomena, such as the coronavirus pandemic and severe weather events exacerbated by climate change. Research and advances in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are able to offer methods and tools to support communities developing solutions that mitigate and adapt to these global catastrophes. However, STEM research cannot create just solutions without recognizing the power and leadership of under-included and marginalized communities. Furthermore, STEM educators must create education experiences that prepare students, teachers, and communities to better understand racist systems and create science-based solutions that are grounded in social justice.

In this article, we highlight climate change education as an example of justice-oriented STEM education and showcase how teacher professional development—using the annual Summer Institute for Climate Change Education as an example—can be structured to give educators a foundation in both the scientific and social ways of understanding climate change as a global phenomenon. Further, we offer methods that educators and education administrators can use to transform their classrooms and curricula into justice-oriented STEM learning opportunities.

STEM and Social Justice Education

STEM education, which is often modeled on the norms and practices of STEM research, is conceptualized in a variety of ways. It has historically focused on preparing students for a workforce trained in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, only very recently considering equity and justice (Committee on STEM Education 2018). In contrast, the theoretical foundation of social justice is based on the idea that education is in service of human enlightenment and human liberation. Social justice educators are committed to promoting and protecting the recognition of people’s intersectional identities, interrupting the reproduction of social inequalities, and preparing justice-oriented citizens who have the capacities to understand and actively respond to the root causes of systemic inequities (Sondel 2017). Thus, a social justice perspective of STEM recognizes research as an inherently social process, one that cannot and should not be separated from the lived experiences of the people performing the research, communities that participated in the research, and people who benefit or are disadvantaged by the research. To incorporate social justice into STEM education, one must be willing to adopt the perspectives and practices of social justice practitioners and create a blended method of teaching justice-oriented STEM education.

To do this, teachers need training and professional development in both scientific and social ways of viewing the world. STEM teachers are unlikely to gain expertise or experience with a social justice approach to education in their training programs, and inservice teachers rarely receive professional learning specifically on how to incorporate culturally relevant pedagogy, identify their internalized racism or bias, or develop cultural competence. This lack of training can hinder educators’ ability to create justice-oriented science education experiences (Stapleton 2015).

When teachers situate STEM education within a justice framework and use culturally responsive, trauma-informed, and social-emotional practices, students benefit—particularly students from marginalized communities (Ruiz 2020). Furthermore, when teachers incorporate social-justice and equity-oriented teaching practices into STEM subjects—such as teaching about relevant social and racial justice movements and connecting to personal stories and experiences or “funds of knowledge”—students engage with the academic content more deeply and in more meaningful ways (Szostkowski and Upadhyay 2019; Morales-Doyle 2017).

Integrating science and social justice in the classroom can be difficult. Valeras (2018) points out the biggest difficulty educators have when conducting this type of education is the “tension between helping students understand and being able to use science concepts and practices to solve problems motivated by the state of the field, and at the same time helping students interrogate the very nature of science, deconstruct its political nature, and use science to transform communities that have been historically marginalized” (p. 189). The next section discusses a way of overcoming this tension and helping teachers integrate science and social justice through climate change.

Climate Change Education: An Example of Blending STEM and Social Justice Education

Interest in education about climate change and students taking action regarding climate change solutions have increased in recent years, attributable in part to the addition of climate change to academic standards; mounting awareness of unusual weather patterns and impacts of extreme weather events; and the deepening concern of the likelihood of global environmental, social, and economic changes due to climate change. For decades, youth, BIPOC, and frontline community activists have been the dominant driving forces calling for climate change action and education in response to the impacts they are experiencing within their communities now (e.g., Eight Native American Leaders Working for Climate Justice, The Youth Group That Launched a Movement at Standing Rock). Today, 44 states, representing 71% of U.S. students, have science education standards that include climate change in some form (National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund 2020).

Climate change is a magnifier of injustice and it epitomizes a problem that demands a systems-thinking approach to education and action. In 2009, Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science was published by the U.S. Global Change Research Program as a compendium presenting information that was—and still is today—important for individuals and communities to know and understand about Earth’s climate, impacts of climate change, and approaches to adaptation or mitigation. By identifying the goal of climate literacy as the building of resilient sustainable communities that can reduce vulnerabilities to climate change impacts, the authors laid the foundation for climate science and social justice to come together in education. Addressing the impacts and societal problems resulting from climate change requires an unprecedented level of integration of teaching and learning across scientific, social science, civic/government, and humanities fields. Further, climate change education requires pedagogical practices that connect STEM knowledge and skills to personal action (Monroe et al. 2019).

The Summer Institute for Climate Change Education

The mission of Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy is to empower individuals and their communities to engage in climate change solutions. Climate Generation educates youth, educators, and communities about climate change impacts and promotes action toward social and scientific solutions. Climate Generation’s teacher professional development programs focus on “anti-siloing” educational environments, creating interdisciplinary resources, and blending social justice-oriented education with STEM education. Attaining climate literacy involves all scientific disciplines, as well as a grounding in the social, economic, and political forces at play. This includes understanding the history of white privilege and racism in the United States that has led to and exacerbated certain climate change impacts (e.g., Racist Housing Policies Create Oppressively Hot Neighborhoods) and seeking to disrupt and end social injustice that causes the burdens of climate change to be felt first and worst by women, and low-income and BIPOC communities (e.g., Hurricanes Hit the Poor the Hardest, Unequal Impact: The Deep Links Between Racism and Climate Change, and Climate Change Connections: Women at the Forefront).

Climate Generation coordinates the Teach Climate Network (TCN), a national network of educators dedicated to learning the newest teaching practices of climate change education and leading their communities to more equitable, long-lasting climate change solutions. Educators in the TCN attend Climate Generation’s annual Summer Institute for Climate Change Education and attend year-round professional development opportunities, trainings, and networking events. Since 2006 more than 5,000 formal and informal educators have received direct professional development, and more than 2.5 million students have been reached indirectly.

Climate Generation provides professional development focused on climate change impacts and solutions using pedagogical practices of environmental education and STEM education, including placed-based and student-centered techniques and educational experiences based in constructivist, collaborative, and reflective teaching theories. Climate Generation also uses learnings from the climate action and social justice movements (a.k.a. climate justice)—such as systems-thinking, solutions-based and action-based education, and youth allyship—to inform the personal and professional development of educators. At the 2020 Summer Institute for Climate Change Education, five learning strands were offered that wove the practices of these movements together:

  1. Science and Other Ways of Knowing
  2. Personal Connection and Storytelling
  3. Breaking Down Structural Racism and Inequities
  4. Scientific and Social Solutions
  5. Supporting Youth Leaders
Attendees work on their personal climate stories at Climate Generation's Talk Climate Institute before the coronavirus pandemic. The Summer Institute for Climate Change Education features workshops from Talk Climate where educators develop personal climate stories and learn how support students using storytelling in their classrooms.
Attendees working on their personal climate stories at Climate Generation's Talk Climate Institute before the coronavirus pandemic. The Summer Institute for Climate Change Education features workshops from Talk Climate where educators develop personal climate stories and learn how support students using storytelling in their classrooms.

Nine sessions were offered within each strand across three days. To understand the breadth of topics covered within each strand, view the entire schedule here. Twenty percent of the concurrent sessions focused specifically on social justice, anti-racism, and multiple ways of knowing (e.g., other ways of understanding and interacting with the world besides STEM). Every session incorporated scientific research, research-based teaching practices, and the social aspects of climate change impacts and solutions to build the confidence and competence of educators for teaching about climate change and climate justice, as well as for making deliberate connections to students’ lived experiences.

The Institute provided educators time to learn; connect with others; and reflect on their personal connection to climate change, professional practice, and views around social justice and anti-racism. Educators learned about climate change impacts, solutions, and teaching practices during the concurrent sessions facilitated by external speakers. Attendees from across the nation were grouped into regional cohorts and led by climate change education leaders from nonprofit organizations, state education administrators, and teachers. Attendees connected with their peers, cohort leaders, and presenters during the small-group discussions in the sessions, and reflected about their practice during cohort working groups and self-guided sessions. Attendees also participated in discussion-based sessions, such as “Anti-racism for White People,” where they shared their personal experiences with anti-racism work and learned how to incorporate social justice practices into their classrooms.

Word cloud
A world cloud created by climate scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe during a keynote presentation, depicting attendee answers to the question, “What are you worried climate change will make worse?”

Climate Generation strives to incorporate an equity lens across all programs and uses it to inform decision making, partnerships, and funding. It is not enough to teach only about equity, anti-racism, and the climate change solutions being developed by BIPOC communities. To combat the systemic underrepresentation of BIPOC leadership in media and under-inclusion of marginalized people in decision-making processes,

  • BIPOC leadership must be visible,
  • BIPOC expertise must be centered in planning processes, and
  • methods must be developed to address inequalities in the availability of environmental education professional development in predominantly BIPOC communities.

In the development phases of the Institute, the planning team invited women and youth of BIPOC communities to be speakers and cohort leaders. Perhaps most importantly, the Institute began with a keynote presentation about being an anti-racist and sharing globally connected teaching from author, educator, and advocate for justice in education, Kelisa Wing (listen to a brief clip of her a powerful call to action for anti-racist teaching). Teacher scholarships were offered for attendance at the Institute, which increased the participation of BIPOC teachers, and/or teachers who predominantly serve students from marginalized communities.

Climate Generation recognizes that change cannot happen in isolation and true change is brought about by the relationships between trusted messengers. With this in mind, attendees had opportunities to learn from and participate in our model of justice-oriented STEM education. Invited speakers and cohort leaders were offered multiple training sessions before the Institute, where they could see and discuss methods for making virtual programming more equitable, including identifying pronouns, stating Indigenous land acknowledgments, and using multi-platform methods of engagement. Recognizing that attendees, cohort leaders, and presenters all hold knowledge and experience that is important to creating community understanding around the best practices of climate change education, all Institute sessions were discussion-based and/or included opportunities for questions and discussion from all participants.

Educator Experience at the Institute

“When I signed up for the Summer Institute, I had no idea how much focus would be placed on social justice. In most, if not all of the sessions I attended, this was addressed in some way, if not already being the primary focus of the session. And, I greatly appreciated the continual message that climate change and social justice are so tightly interwoven that you truly cannot address one with addressing the other.” — Ninth-grade science teacher and Institute attendee

Social justice-oriented STEM education is powerful. When done well, educators and students receive a grounding in scientific theory; learn the socio-economic connections; and take political, community, or professional actions that benefit society. Overall, educators, presenters, and partners in the Institute were transformed by the experience and left feeling inspired, excited, and energized for their work.

 

Concept map created by an Institute attendee showing the breadth of experiences and knowledge gained at the event.
Concept map created by an Institute attendee showing the breadth of experiences and knowledge gained at the event.

To highlight the dramatic shift in understanding that one teacher experienced, we share the personal reflections of a single ninth-grade science teacher from Minnesota throughout this section and provide broader context and meaning to connect her experiences to the nuances of social justice–orientated STEM education. Historically, STEM education has been the main context within which people learn about climate; however, we now know that climate change impacts and solutions demand our understanding of indigenous ways of knowing (e.g., traditional ecological knowledge), environmental justice and anti-racism, and social and gender biases. For this reason, many science teachers seek out professional development opportunities to help them understand the connection between the scientific and the social impacts of climate change. The ninth-grade science teacher’s reason for attending the Institute includes the following:

“My interest in adding to my educator toolbelt in teaching climate change stems from both the coming changes to the MN Science Standards and my own desire to enrich the experiences I give my students in this area. I went into the workshop hoping for resources and concrete ideas to give relevance to and personalize [climate change] for my students.”

The Institute blended climate science, STEM skills, and the social impacts and solutions of climate change seamlessly across all concurrent sessions. Solutions to climate change require STEM but rely on social activism and behavioral change that comes from individuals working together. When connecting to an issue as threatening as climate change, it is important to focus on highlighting solutions to show resilient and science-informed community-based action. There are several resources available to educators—such as Project Drawdown (drawdown.org) and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (sdgs.un.org/goals)—to help connect to local and global scale solutions. The ninth-grade educator commented on her experience at a session led by Project Drawdown’s Elizabeth Bagley:

“The session “Reaching Drawdown: Climate Solutions in Action” gave me so many resources and facts to expand my knowledge of the data about climate solutions. Reaching Drawdown shared the idea of reducing sources of CO2 supporting sinks, and improving society as important in the goal of drawing down the carbon levels in the world. Some of the solutions are specific acts that all students can do and can get excited and passionate about doing as well.”

Education that leads to individual behavior change and community-based action must connect broader scientific theory and phenomena to local, observable impacts and solutions. Connecting science with the social aspects of climate change engaged and inspired educators to see how the phenomena impacts their own lives and their students' lives. The sessions at the Institute successfully did this, and also highlighted that agency and accessibility looks different across communities, and teachers should strive to make learning and actions accessible to all of their students. The ninth-grade educator reflected,

“...along with getting excited about acts that students can do personally or as a school community, the week also taught me to inspire students to look way beyond their own personal contribution to climate change. In fact, one of the student panel sessions reminded me that individual action is not accessible to all students and placing guilt on students is ineffective. The students highlighted that teachers should share actions that students can do to impact big corporations and government officials. Social activism can be accessible to all students.”

Understanding personal privilege and inherent biases, and how they impact teaching and relationships with students is a central tenet of justice-oriented STEM education. Through sessions like “Anti-racism for White People” and the keynote speakers, educators reflected on their personal privilege and worked toward transforming their teaching practice with the knowledge that they are a part of a system that deprioritizes and conceals the lived experiences of their students of color. The ninth-grade educator reflects,

“The advice of Kelisa Wing to ‘use what you have, start where you are, and do what you can’ is an inspiration to help me and help the committee I am working with to connect the students with our curriculum. She reminded us to focus on connections with the students. As an older white woman, I know that my students of color don’t see themselves reflected back at them. But, I do know that I can still be the duct tape that brings them passion about climate science through leading them to see how it matters in their lives and that they can make a difference.”

Justice-oriented STEM education asks us to not only know and listen to the stories from marginalized communities but also act toward making a more just world for us, our students, and our communities. At the Institute, educators were urged to become advocates for their students' well-being, create more equitable classrooms, and find ways to empower and move their students toward community action.

“As I reflect on the experiences during the three days, I come away with several new inspirations and tools to add to my teaching toolbelt. Most importantly, I come away with a paradigm shift from teaching about the problem and possible solutions to focusing on the solutions and empowering students to act.” 

The experiences and reflections of this ninth-grade high school teacher were not isolated; many educators at the Institute realized the power of weaving together social justice and STEM education, and left feeling more competent and confident in their ability to use climate change education practices. In pre-event and post-event surveys, educators rated their confidence for teaching climate change-related topics on a scale ranging between extremely confident to not confident (see graphic below). For the purposes of this article, response results included “confident” and “not confident.” Overall, educators entering the Institute were already relatively confident about their knowledge and ability to teach about climate change causes, impacts, and solutions. The majority of educators increased their confidence for teaching some climate change science–related topics, engaging students in climate action projects, and teaching about the connections between social justice and climate change. Educators reported the largest increase in confidence levels for teaching about traditional ecological knowledge and the intersection of racism, capitalism, and climate change. Educators reported lowest growth in confidence around the greenhouse effect, human impacts on earth systems, the historical rise of global climate change, and the difference between weather and climate.

Graphic showing educator confidence in teaching about selected topics related to climate change as reported in pre and post-surveys. Educator responses for pre-surveys (N = 216) and post-surveys (N = 153) are normalized to the total number of surveys.

Educator confidence in teaching about selected topics related to climate change as reported in pre and post-surveys. Educator responses for pre-surveys (N = 216) and post-surveys (N = 153) are normalized to the total number of surveys.

Lessons Learned From the Institute

Educators attending the Institute could choose from a total of 60 sessions (e.g., keynote presentations and discussion or workshop-based sessions). Participants created their own personal schedules, attending 12 sessions on average across the three days. Educators attended sessions that were of personal or professional interest to them. Results of pre-event and post-event surveys showed that the increase in educator confidence across all measured topic areas was uneven, presumably due to the variation in personal schedules created by educators. The topic areas where educators reported the largest confidence gains were featured in multiple workshops, discussion groups, and keynote presentations throughout the Institute. Topic areas with the lowest gain in confidence were featured in one or two events at the Institute. In future years, session topics can be more strategically planned across events and times to allow educators more opportunities to engage with all topic areas.

Throughout the development of the Institute, the planning and advisory teams followed an emergent design planning process that allowed for flexibility and collaboration across organizations. The partnerships developed during the planning and implementation of the Institute directly influenced the content, resources, and featured speakers and presenters.  In total, there were 41 presenters, 11 cohort leaders, and 6 planning and advisory team members who contributed to the development of the Institute. Thirty-two percent of the presenters identified as BIPOC and 68% percent as white, 6% of cohort leaders identified as BIPOC or worked to support a predominantly BIPOC community and 94% as white, and all of the planning and advisory team identified as white. The imbalance of racial backgrounds in leadership roles most likely worked against efforts to decenter whiteness and provide a truly equitable professional learning experience for educators of all races in attendance. Planning for future years will focus on increasing BIPOC representation and leadership in the earliest stages of the Institute and providing continuous opportunities for feedback from BIPOC individuals during the planning process.

Final Thoughts

Climate change education centered in justice provides a powerful model for social justice–oriented STEM education. Climate change educators blend the principles of climate literacy, climate science, and climate justice to create a systems-based approach to education that inspires educators and students into civic action that benefits themselves and their communities. Effective climate change education connects local impacts and solutions to the global scale and uses personal connection to elicit behavior change and action toward community-based solutions. Taking the learnings from climate change education, STEM educators can begin their journey into practicing justice-oriented STEM education by reimagining the purpose of STEM education in their classrooms, highlighting underrepresented stories and the people power behind STEM, and connecting to opportunities for students to take action in community projects.

Whether you are an administrator looking for ways to support your teachers or an educator deciding what to do next, these tips will help you continue on your journey to be a justice-oriented STEM educator:

  • Ensure you are promoting the ideas, histories, and current opportunities of scientists and educators from one or more marginalized positionalities to ensure ongoing shifts in historic power inequities.
  • Seek professional learning on social justice or social justice-oriented STEM education. (Check out Learning for Justice (learningforjustice.org)
  • Find organizations that provide ongoing, year-round professional learning opportunities and networking that connect educators to diverse groups of people. (e.g., Climate Generation’s Teach Climate Network)
  • Try out interdisciplinary and social justice–oriented curriculum resources. (e.g., Zinn Education Project)
  • Do the personal work. Learn about your internalized biases, white privilege, and racism in schools. (Check out Rethinking Schools: Diversity vs. White Privilege.)
  • Be an advocate for your students and an activist for social justice. (For ideas, read Radical STEM Teacher Activism.)
  • Think about the underrepresented stories and connect science to people by showcasing the stories of people who work within STEM fields (e.g., Green Careers for a Changing Climate) or the stories of your students (e.g., Climate Storytelling Lesson for the Classroom).
  • Provide an outlet for taking action in the community.

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Deb Morrison, Lauren Boritzke Smith, Jothsna Harris, and Denise Fosse for their contributions in the writing and editing of this article. The Summer Institute for Climate Change Education would not have been possible without the guidance, support, and efforts of Frank Niepold at the NOAA Climate Office, Jen Kretser and Erin Griffin from the Wild Center’s Youth Climate Program, and the entire Climate Generation staff. We also want to thank the staff at Climate Generation, particularly the leadership team for the commitment to incorporate anti-racism into our organizational culture and the BIPOC staff team and the anti-racism planning team for supporting the creation of equitable and inclusive programming.

Lindsey Kirkland (lindsey@climategen.org) is the Climate Change Education Manager and Kristen Poppleton is the Senior Director of Programs, both at Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


citation: Kirkland, L., and K. Poppleton. 2021. Climate change education: A model of justice-oriented STEM education. Connected Science Learning 3 (1). https://www.nsta.org/connected-science-learning-january-february-2021/climate-change-education-model-justice-oriented

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