The average high school science teacher in the United States spends one to two hours a year talking about climate change in the classroom, according to a 2016 survey by Science (one of the most recent studies of this kind).
Let that sink in.
Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity, and yet, we’re hardly even talking about it in our schools. Environmental education in the U.S. is plagued by a lack of funding for teacher training and a curriculum that often does not incorporate interactive, engaging lessons.
Most teachers say they haven’t received any professional training on how to talk about climate change, according to a 2022 survey from EdWeek Research Center. The current system is largely dependent on each individual teacher’s background and there are simply not enough teachers trained to educate students about nuanced topics within the earth science curriculum, including climate change.
A physics teacher told me that unless information is real and relevant, it won’t stick in students’ minds. With a problem as crucial as climate change, we need to teach students about the solutions — and we need those lessons to stick.
As a current high schooler myself, I’ve noticed another problem with earth science curriculum — it can be boring. I found a year’s worth of earth science curriculum at my school – including the memorization of 15 laws passed by Congress under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts – was not nearly as thought provoking as a 12-minute YouTube video about liquid air batteries and their role in furthering sustainability.
I’m in a unique position to work alongside the teachers who have taught me to try and change this dynamic. I have authored a children’s book on how young students even in kindergarten through second grade can positively make an impact on their surrounding environment and I have also helped build a community garden. My children’s book has been used nationally as a resource for primary educators to make climate change into something tangible for their students, and the garden is poised to be a critical part of our school’s environmental science curriculum.
Educators need to be equipped with these kinds of tools so they’re able to teach climate change in an engaging and informative way, and schools can build on those experiences by creating new curriculums that incorporate novel technologies and updates from a field that is changing constantly.
By learning the frontiers of what we already know, students can learn how they too could one day be on the cutting edge of new climate technologies. Biology has dissections and chemistry has experiments, but I’d argue there hasn’t been a fluid enough framework for similar content in environmental science. For example, rather than just talking about sustainable agriculture, students should have the opportunity to grow plants and analyze them.
Hands-on activities make the content feel real and relevant for the students who will vote and make decisions a few years from now.
What’s more, climate change engagement should not be limited to just earth science courses. It’s a complex, multidisciplinary issue cutting across various fields, including social studies, language, economics, history and even math. Approaching environmental education from all aspects would show that climate action is something everyone can get involved in, no matter what career they want to pursue.
To revamp climate education for students, we also need to rethink climate education for their teachers. The National Science Teaching Association has some ideas about providing teachers with the tools they need to teach climate change, a critical piece of this puzzle. But in a troubling potential trend, some schools, such as those in Florida, may be going backward in terms of climate change curriculum and fueling rejection of mainstream science.
Each step that contributes to improved climate education, no matter how small, will help get us closer to surmounting humanity’s greatest hurdles. I hope that my garden changes the trajectory of my school’s environmental science department, and I hope these changes inspire schools across the country to take climate education seriously. After all, the future of humanity may rest in the same hands that are in school right now.