Classroom Clashes (Pt. 2): Teaching climate change

Editor's note: This feature is the second in a two-part series on teachers who face challenges to science in middle and high school classrooms.

One spring Friday, a student in Dawn Richards' AP Environmental Science class dug his heels in. There isn't scientific consensus about climate change, he asserted. When Richards showed him the raw carbon dioxide data, he shot back, you can interpret data however you want.

Richards continued to attempt open dialogue, but the stubborn student continued to argue, she later told AAAS. "I would love for him to share with me the things he does think are causing these alterations," says Dawn Richards, a AAAS member who teaches at Baylor School, a private school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. But students who shut down or argue aren't really looking at the data, she explains, and instead use sources such as blogs to support their points. "That is typical — the hard science is completely discounted," she says. 

Student challenges to the validity of climate science such as this are a regular classroom occurrence, reports Richards.

Just as evolution is contentious in some schools, climate change has become the latest topic to spark classroom disagreements. Despite near-consensus in the scientific community, questions about the validity of climate change science and global warming continue to circulate in mainstream media, news, blogs, and publications.

"This is a national issue but always resolves itself in a district or even a classroom," says Frank Niepold, climate education coordinator for the Climate Program Office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Silver Spring, Maryland. 

As long as individuals continue to debate climate change validity on news stations, radio shows, and online, students will bring these biases into the classroom. That means science teachers across the country must defend science to preserve the truth about climate change — as well as the way the next generation views it. Even though climate scientists and thousands of studies back them up, teachers still face push back.

Science teachers stand their ground

Back in Tennessee, Richards was conflicted. She didn't want to engage this student, who had pushed back before, but she didn't want the rest of the class to think that her silence meant she agreed. "This particular student tends to be closed minded ... he has a rhetoric in his mind," Richards says.

So she kept trying to focus on the raw data, which speaks for itself. "Every time [a student challenges climate change], I've never had a person have any evidence ... they're vocal about it, but I've never had anyone who's argued well," says Richards, who was a researcher before transitioning to teaching eight years ago.

Arguments likely came from this student's parents, who didn't believe that humans were causing climate change, explains Richards, who notes that many in her southern Tennessee community believe that climate change is not anthropogenic.

Debate is good, but any debater needs to be informed. During this classroom conversation, the student kept returning to politics. Even when Richards tried to steer him back to the science, he couldn't separate the two issues.

For teachers across the country, classroom struggles could take many forms: students challenging another student, a parent challenging a school or teacher, or even a science department in disagreement.

Over in Nashville, Tennessee, AAAS member Gary Schott teaches a senior elective Ecology/Environmental Issues class at an independent school. "I think that the kids understand the issue and appreciate the argument that rising greenhouse gas levels are probably having an impact on the climate," he wrote in an email. "I'm sure that some of them have parents who aren't fans of Al Gore and think it's all a big scam, but I don't hear that in my class." Schott suspects, however, that the students in his elective class may be a self-selected group. 

But groups such as NOAA and the National Center for Science Education that hear far too many stories like Richards' have doubled their efforts to help science teachers dig deep into their science training and stand their ground.

A phony debate

Part of the problem, may rest with the media. Too many reporters and editors believe that there are two sides to the story — pro climate change and against climate change. "A lot of people struggle with the science controversy, but the science field isn't contentious about the science," Niepold explains. "It becomes contentious between the science and the society issues."

Richards was interviewed by a reporter who also referenced an old published paper that had been retracted — probably a mistake made late at night filing the story for deadline. Other news outlets seek out vocal naysayers to try to balance out an article. Such practices create doubt and confusion, perpetuating the two-sided perception. As a result, students will quote radio programs about studies being untrue, and think that they have a point.

"Some teachers teach both sides of what is really a phony debate. In their minds it's fair and balanced but in fact it leads to confusion rather than clarity," says Mark McCaffrey, programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

There is a real concern that students are walking away with confusion about whether human activities are changing the climate, echoes Niepold.

Teachers are under pressure from school administration and even local governments. One Michigan teacher even had to go before her school board to give an account of how she was teaching climate science.

The National Center for Science Education, an Oakland-based organization, has supported the teaching of evolution for years, but recently added climate change as another subject it will monitor in classrooms. "Teachers need specific standards," says Steven Newton at NCSE.

Challenges to climate science typically fall under three categories, according to the NCSE: that climate change is bad science, that acceptance of climate change is driven by radical ideological motivations, and that the 'controversy' needs to be acknowledged.

To complicate matters, a handful of state governments are meddling with science teaching. Tennessee just passed a new law that protects teachers who challenge the scientific integrity of climate change (as well as evolution) in their classrooms. Science organizations, including AAAS and NCSE, consider the bill a setback.

"Scientific observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are a primary driver," wrote AAAS CEO Alan Leshner in a March letter to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, who allowed the bill to become law in April. "...Implying that there are significant scientific controversies about the overall nature of these concepts when there are not will only confuse students, not enlighten them."

Other states also wrestle with how to teach the subject: An Oklahoma representative in the state legislature tried to add language to a recent bill that would have encouraged teachers to teach the scientific strengths and weaknesses of 'controversial topics' including global warming; the bill effort failed.

In yet other states, McCaffrey continues, climate change curriculum is missing altogether in state standards.

Some of the debate may settle soon, after new national kindergarten through high school science standards are completed. These standards, based on a framework by the National Academies of Sciences and other science organizations, including AAAS, will assert that human activities have at least a partial impact on climate changes.

Arguing proven points

As for her classes, Richards is usually successful in teaching students about climate change. "Scientists aren't driving a fancy car because that's how the data turned out," she'll tell students. After showing the data and explaining how the peer review process works and papers get published, most students understand.

"Basically, the scientific evidence is overwhelming that people are influencing the climate," Richards says. "Few scientists doubt it."

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