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The Facts Do Not Speak for Themselves

Exposing Students to the Powerful Story of Climate Change

Science Scope—April/May 2020 (Volume 43, Issue 8)

By Jason T. Hilton and Patrick A. Burkhart

Scientific knowledge and the facts produced in ostensibly objective and neutral ways have been given prominence above other ways of knowing from the period of the enlightenment through to the explosion of mass media (Giroux 2001; Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002). However, the growth of mass and social media has given more access and prominence to the social construction of knowledge (McLaren and Kincheloe 2007). While facts are derived from scientific study, opinions are derived from the stories people tell. Stories relate to facts, but also select for and attach meaning to certain facts while ignoring others completely (Gabriel 2004). The power of the narrative to shape opinion comes not from the facts, but from the meaning made out of selectively choosing those facts and connecting them to emotions, thus lending credibility to common experiences (Gabriel 2004). In this way, interpretation becomes more important than facts, and what cannot be easily explained scientifically can be easily understood with stories (Stewart 2012).

When teachers move away from teaching the facts as standalone concepts, and move toward an approach in which the facts are positioned with their consequences, they help their students to tell a more convincing story. When teaching about climate change, evidence should be connected to stories of natural disaster, loss of critical land and animal resources, and the visible effects of industrialization on the local environment of students. Climate change is not just facts about changing global weather patterns; it is a global story and a local story waiting to be told.

Telling the story on a global level

As an example of teaching climate change through storytelling, students can be exposed to all or parts of the award winning documentary film, Chasing Ice. Chasing Ice details the journey of James Balog to document the impact of climate change (Burkhart et al. 2017). James grew frustrated with computer models and data related to climate change, and as a photo and video journalist, he set off to document the story of climate change with the types of visual documentation that craft a powerful and convincing story. This documentary tracks his efforts as part of the Extreme Ice Survey to photograph the influence our warming climate is having on glaciers around Planet Earth. The story he presents and the visual evidence that accompanies this story are persuasive and present students with an opportunity to see what the acceleration of climate change looks like with their own eyes. With Chasing Ice as an example for how to tell the story of climate change with visual evidence rather that data models, students are being exposed not only to the global impact of climate change, but also to a way in which they can tell their own stories.

Telling the story at the local level

Though human-accelerated climate change is a global crisis, the effects of climate change can be witnessed in the local community of every school building. Having students explore the local effects not only provides them with physical evidence, it empowers teachers to teach about climate change through the story of its impact on the local community.

To this end, engage students in the exploration of the spaces around their school, including greenspaces nearby and their local community, for the purpose of discovering and documenting the impact climate change is having locally. Using readily available technology, such as cellphones or mobile devices, encourages students to take photographs and videos of their findings, allowing them to share evidence of climate change in the format they are most familiar with and find most convincing (Hohlfeld et al. 2017; Keengwe and Bhatgava 2014). Throughout the process, students should be encouraged to craft their story so that it builds on the idea that “climate change is everywhere.”

The chart “Finding the Effects of Climate Change in Your Local Community” is designed to guide teachers to evidence of climate change in their local communities, regardless of where they teach within the United States. Teachers can make use of the examples within the chart that fit the regional location of their community and the resources that are most readily available. By exploring a site where students will be searching, teachers can locate evidence more quickly and better facilitate student exploration.

  • Finding the Effects of Climate Change in Your Local Community

  • Region: Western U.S. Phenomenon: more bark beetles are surviving the winter months, destroying massive areas of pine forest. Story to be documented: large areas of dead pine trees. Resource:

  • Region: Western U.S. Phenomenon: lakes are drying up as a result of increased heat and decreased precipitation. Story to be documented: local dry lake beds and images of current and historical boundaries of large local bodies of water. Resource:

  • Region: Western U.S. Phenomenon: due to lessening precipitation, increased temperatures, and the increase in dead trees, wildfire frequency and severity has risen and the fire season has increased in duration. Story to be documented: current locations and status of wildfires. Resource:

  • Region: Western and Central U.S. Phenomenon: soil moisture is decreasing as summer temperatures continue to rise and heat waves become more prevalent. Story to be documented: measurement of soil moisture levels in the local area, over the course of a school year. Resource:

  • Region: Northern and Southwestern U.S. Phenomenon: as a result of shifts in the weather pattern brought on by climate change, rainfall is increasing in the North while decreasing in the Southwest. Story to be documented: track frequency and severity of precipitation events and compare to historical data. Resource:

  • Region: Northern U.S. Phenomenon: climate change has altered the plant hardiness zones within the United States, making it possible for plants that were previously only sustainable in the southern regions to become sustainable farther north. Story to be documented: discussion with your knowledgeable local arborist can help to identify local examples. Resource:

  • Region: Eastern U.S. Phenomenon: the intensity, frequency and duration of hurricanes is increasing as a result of climate change. Story to be documented: track these factors in hurricanes during the current hurricane season and compare with recent years and historical periods. Resource:

  • Region: All regions of the U.S. Phenomenon: the growing season has been lengthening since the 1980s. Story to be documented: speak to local farmers, and track the end of a growing season and the beginning of the next season and compare this with historical accounts of the same dates. Resource:

  • Region: All regions of the U.S. Phenomenon: trees that previously were prevalent and healthy are now dying off due to increased temperature changes that allow pest infestations to grow. Story to be documented: presence of forest pests and local tree decay. Resource: old-files/Forest-Pests-and-Climate-Change_ FullBulletin.pdf

  • Region: All regions of the U.S. Phenomenon: Increase in the number of 90°+ days per year. Story to be documented: Compare number of 90°+ days per year in the previous year to historical dates, such as birthdates of family members of incorporation dates of local town/city. Resource: climate/how-much-hotter-is-your-hometown.html

Connecting the global and local stories

If time permits, teachers can also further connect the local stories they have crafted to the global stories that others (such as James Balog) tell. NASA has collected the most obvious and profound of these effects into a visual archive of evidence (see Resources for links to similar collections from National Geographic and the Environmental Defense Fund). Having students explore the evidence online, and then link their local findings to the larger global impacts, can allow them to see how the Earth is being changed on a local, national, and global scale by climate change.

The story of climate change can speak for itself

With the growth of mass media and social media, a cultural emphasis on the stories people tell has quickly displaced a reliance on scientific ways of knowing. The stories told in classrooms must be relevant to students in the local setting and connected to that which is clearly visible. Such an approach will allow students to independently arrive at reasoned conclusions that confirm scientifically derived knowledge presented in the classroom. Human-accelerated climate change is at once a perfect way to teach scientific knowledge through a local story and to allow students to tell a story that impacts the entire globe.

Jason T. Hilton ( is an associate professor in the Department of Secondary Education/Foundations of Education and Patrick A. Burkhart is a professor in the Department of Geography, Geology, and the Environment, both at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.


Burkhart P.A., Alley R.B., Thompson L.G., Balog J.D., Baldauf P., and Baker G.S.. 2017. Savor the cryosphere. GSA Today 27 (8): 4–10.

Gabriel Y. 2004. The narrative veil: Truths and untruths in storytelling. In Myths, stories and organizations: Premodern narratives for our times, ed. Gabriel Y., 17–31. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Giroux H.A. 2001. Theory and resistance in education: Towards a pedagogy for the opposition (Revised and expanded ed.). Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Hohlfeld T.N., Ritzhaupt A.D., Dawson K., and Wilson M.L.. 2017. An examination of seven years of technology integration in Florida schools: Through the lens of the levels of digital divide in school. Computers & Education 113 (1): 135–61.

Horkheimer M., and Adorno T.. 2002. Dialectic of enlightenment: Philosophical fragments, trans. JephcottE.. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Keengwe J., and Bhatgava M.. 2014. Mobile learning and integration of mobile technologies in education. Education and Information Technologies 19 (4): 737-46.

McLaren P., and Kincheloe J. L., eds. 2007. Critical pedagogy: Where are we now? New York: Peter Lang.

Stewart J. 2012. Fiction over facts: How competing narrative forms explain policy in a new immigration destination. Sociological Forum 27 (3): 591–616.

Arbor Day Foundation: U.S. Hardiness Zones

Chasing Ice Documentary

Environmental Defense Fund: 7 ways global warming affects daily life

Environmental Defense Fund: Climate change is everywhere

Extreme Ice Survey

Fire, Weather and Avalanche: Wildfire tracking

Forest Pests and Climate Change

Geological Society of America: Savor the cryosphere

National Geographic: Effects of global warming

NASA: Effects of global climate change

NASA: Evidence of global climate change

NOAA’s teaching climate webpage

New York Times: How much hotter is your hometown

Climate Change Middle School

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