8 May 2019

Organizers of Saturday’s nationwide March for Science have some pretty lofty goals: supporting science “as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.” Promoting “evidence-based policies in the public interest.” Oh, and don’t forget highlighting “the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.” Whoa, that’s a lot of exalted ground to cover with one cardboard sign! But long after those signs and slogans are put away, educators will continue the fun, hard slog of helping students understand key issues, like global warming, the science behind it and what students can do to help. I reached out to three veteran experts on climate science education — Scott Denning, Frank Niepold and Rebecca Anderson — who’ll be working on the issue during and after this weekend’s marches. I wanted to hear more about their work and challenges, especially at a time when the head of the EPA has questioned the human role in global warming and President Trump has proposed slashing climate change funding and pulling back many environmental regulations.

First up: Scott Denning. By day, Denning teaches atmospheric science at Colorado State University. He’s also the former editor of the Journal of Climate and the founding science chair of the North American Carbon Program. He has produced lots of peer-reviewed scholarly papers on the topic. And, for more than a decade, Denning has helped educate audiences of all ages about the realities of climate change. Climate change and climate, in general, is a fantastic, cross-cutting subject that helps kids, students, adults connect between physics and chemistry and biology and economics and social stuff. It’s a wonderful application of almost everything that you teach. Certainly, Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards have lots of opportunity to do applied learning and cross-cutting issues like that. I think it’s not adding something to your curriculum. It’s actually dead on with your curricular priorities. Secondly, this is something that will grow to be a bigger and bigger problem until we stop making it bigger. Then it won’t go away. Kids will wind up working with this issue as they grow up, and throughout their careers and their lives, in virtually any field that they choose to go into.

Sometimes I feel like I kind of have that grandparent’s advantage that people talk about. You go in and you play with the kid and it’s really fun, and then when you’re done they go back to their folks and I don’t have to bring them home. Yeah, it’s been fantastic working with K-12. Absolutely delightful. I’ve spent almost my entire career working with graduate students and that’s fun, too. Brilliant 20-somethings who are passionate and dedicated and work really hard — there’s nothing wrong with that. But going into their [K-12] classrooms, doing hands-on experiments, watching them light up, watching them learn by doing, play with little demos, do their own little experiments — it’s a blast. I can see why middle school and high school teachers enjoy their jobs. Teaching science to kids involves more than just content delivery. There’s a whole engagement piece and trying to get kids to learn from doing hands-on science experimental stuff. I keep going back to this metaphor of putting a pot of water on the stove because it’s direct, in-your-face experience of how the world works, how the universe works. A lot of the science behind global warming, believe it or not, is just classic thermodynamics. You don’t need relativity, and quantum physics, and all that to understand this. It’s very straightforward. By the time students are in high school, they’re supposed to understand basic stuff about heat and radiation. That is in curricula.

Linking climate change to earth science, that’s maybe more challenging and it’s maybe stuff that teachers didn’t get themselves when they were in college, so they’ve got a professional development obligation there to try to pick up some of this material that’s developed since they were in higher ed. The other thing, of course, is that, especially in rural communities, you may find teachers that encounter this political polarization: There may be pushback, there may be resistance to teaching this material, just as there is in biology when you teach evolution. That can be very challenging. I probably will. I’ve been thinking about it. You know, there really aren’t very many climate scientists in the world. We’re one of the smallest minorities. There are only a few thousand of us in the whole world. We don’t have any special right to influence the politics. On the other hand, we don’t have any less right to political opinion or public speech than anybody else. I don’t give up my rights as an American because I’m a scientist. I wouldn’t say there’s one sweet spot, there’s a series of them. I used to teach middle school science and I used to teach high school, and I’ve worked extensively with colleges and universities. I would say middle school is really where you’re starting to get into the richness of the issues and you have enough of the conceptual understanding of these complex systems that you can get into. I mean, one of the best questions I was ever asked was by a seventh-grader who said, “If I understand climate change right, are all the jobs then going to change?” They want to know: ‘What am I preparing my academic time to focus on? What’s important?’ That’s what’s meaningful to them.

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