Climate Change Education: Where Should Teachers Even Start?

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Jeanne Sager

Written by Jeanne Sager

You don’t need us to tell you that teaching about climate change can be complicated. Bills in a number of states could put climate education in jeopardy, and some states have outright banned using the phrase in the classroom. But we do have some good news: Did you know 80 percent of parents actually want teachers to teach their kids about climate change?

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Yup. In an NPR survey, four out of five parents said they support teaching about climate change in public schools. And teachers? Well, some 86 percent in the profession are on board. Not sure where to start and what to say? The Teach Starter podcast team has been talking to teachers, climate experts, and more from organizations like EarthDay.org and others to help you do just that!

Here’s what they say about teaching about climate change!

Why Is Education Important for Climate Change?

Climate Change Education

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Aside from the support from parents and how teachers themselves feel, let’s face it: The children in our classrooms are going to face the effects of human activity on the planet long after we’re gone. What’s more, they need to be educated about the impacts on the environment in order to be able to be good global citizens and affect change. And while pre-pandemic social movements like the March for Climate Change were encouraging, most American kids don’t know all that much about climate change.

In a Washington Post poll conducted earlier this year, just 49 percent of American teens said they saw climate change as a major threat.

“Scientists actually picked climate education as one of six societal transformations needed to stabilize the earth’s atmosphere by 2050, in line with the Paris agreement,” Rachel Weisbrot, education and communication manager of EarthDay.org, pointed out in her appearance on the Teach Starter podcast earlier this fall.

“We’re already seeing so many of the changes from climate change, and already the most vulnerable communities are being impacted and having to move from their homes, and we’re seeing these horrible events from climate change taking place that I really want to stress that no one is immune,” Weisbrot added. “It’s going to affect us all and it already is, which is where education comes in.”

The goal of climate education isn’t just to prepare students for the changes ahead, she explained, but to “instill hope that something can be done about it.”

And it’s more than just teaching the science itself — climate change education is also about teaching children how to assess sources in the media to weed out misinformation and disinformation and how to adapt to economic changes too.

“It’s these 21st-century skills that allow students to enter new jobs and to evaluate media,” Weisbrot said.

So where do teachers come into all of this?

Climate Change Professional Development for Teachers

If you’re not tackling climate change in the classroom or only dipping your toe into the waters because you don’t feel equipped to cover the topic, you’re far from alone. The NPR survey that found 86 percent of teachers support climate change education also found that 65 percent don’t teach it because they feel it falls outside their subject area, 20 percent felt their students were too young and 17 percent felt they didn’t know enough or didn’t have the necessary resources.

How Do You Teach Elementary Students About Climate Change?

Feel you’ve got this? You’re ready to teach climate change? How do you teach it to elementary students? You’re not alone out there. There are plenty of resources that can help make climate change something even the youngest kids can begin to understand.

NASA

The experts at NASA don’t just provide resources for teachers to learn about climate change. They also have free downloadable education modules for teachers from kindergarten all the way up through 12th grade. The lessons are all based on NASA climate science and data and created in conjunction with the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies.

NASA’s Climate Kids site is another great resource and site kids can explore during free time or as a resource for classroom projects.

EarthDay.org

Weisbrot’s organization lets you sign up as an Earth Day school to get information on how to host cleanups and participate in citizen science. Plus there are countless resources to use in the classroom!

US Department of Energy

Clean energy is a major talking point for climate change scientists, and energy is something kids need to learn about. The US Department of Energy has a Solar Decathlon stocked with free teacher resources to teach about energy efficiency, electricity, conservation, and a whole lot more from grade kindergarten on.

Teaching ESOL? There are Spanish-language resources too!

Global Goals for Sustainable Development

In September 2015, 193 world leaders agreed to 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development. If we could complete these Goals, it would mean an end to extreme poverty, inequality, and climate change by 2030.  Want to share them with your class? You can use these free downloadable posters and videos to support your teaching.

NOAA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tracks weather and has been on the forefront as weather patterns have shifted due to climate change. The federal agency has a host of climate change teaching resources.  Most are directed at teachers of older students, but there are quite a few specific to middle school.

Teach Starter

Hey, that’s us! The teachers on the Teach Starter resource creating team are dedicated to helping teachers create a better future. It’s why you’ll find many of our resources are available as Google Slides to reduce the need to print, and why we have a full Sustainability Learning Area.

These may be a great way to introduce the basics of care for our environment. Small actions children make will contribute to a brighter future.

Here are some of our favorites:

Podcast Episodes About Climate Change Education

We’ve been talking a lot about Climate Change recently! These first two episodes go together with the blog you’re reading right now. You’ll hear from teachers around the world who are making climate a priority in their classrooms. You can listen here, or find these episodes on your favorite podcast app.

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