The week of July 8, eighteen middle school and high school teachers and thirteen elementary school teachers from across Indiana became the newest cohorts in the ERI-sponsored Educating for Environmental Change (EfEC) teacher professional development program. This marked the second year of the middle/high school institute and the inaugural year of the elementary institute.
The workshops were part of a joint initiative organized by the IU School of Education Center for P-16 Research and Collaboration, the Environmental Resilience Institute, WonderLab Museum, and climate scientists from several IU departments, including Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Biology, Physics, and the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Bloomington High School South science teacher Kirstin Milks and St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School science teacher Kirstin Maxwell served as lead educator consultants for the program. The intensive, hands-on workshops provided teachers with engaging curricula and effective strategies for classroom instruction about climate change.
A survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 72 percent of Hoosiers, and 79 percent of Americans agree that schools should teach children about the causes, consequences, and potential solutions to global warming. Although there is overwhelming support for incorporating climate change in K-12 curricula, teachers often have little training and support for doing so and face additional barriers, including a lack of age-appropriate resources and the perpetuation of a partisan disinformation campaign. The EfEC program aims to assist teachers in overcoming these challenges to teach about environmental change across disciplines.
Here are five takeaways from an energizing and impactful week of discussions with Indiana educators:
Teachers hold diverse motivations for tackling climate change in the classroom
Teachers reported a wide variety of reasons for attending the workshops:
- learning more about Indiana climate and resilience,
- overcoming climate change skepticism in their schools and communities,
- finding ways to include more science instruction across curriculums,
- bringing resources and knowledge back to their schools and communities,
- finding hope in an often-daunting political landscape,
- helping students find their authentic voices when discussing climate change, and
- framing the complex climate change issue in a developmentally appropriate way.
Inquiry-based learning and other approaches help students understand climate concepts
During the workshops, teachers dove deep into climate change science and inquiry-based learning. Workshop programming included classroom-based modules on global climate science, field-based research on soil carbon respiration and tree-ring research, stakeholder exercises integrating scientific and policy approaches to addressing climate change, and a wide variety of sessions ranging from evaluating the climate-change connections of natural disasters to calculating personal carbon footprints in order to gauge the need for individual action and systemic change.
Getting students to actively engage in science can encourage trust of scientific findings
Participants and organizers discussed the importance of cultivating deeper and active student learning by situating students as do-ers of science who understand that scientific and engineering practices are non-linear, iterative processes.
We considered a range of options for immersing students in inquiry-based learning, including citizen science initiatives, expeditionary learning, and shifting away from competition-based science and engineering assignments in favor of collaborative solution-based projects that respond to real social needs. Only when students have conducted their own observations, collected evidence, developed their own claims, and provided reasoning for their findings will they begin to trust scientific consensus regarding climate science.
Teachers are essential agents of social change who can advance discussion of climate change’s broader contexts
Workshop participants reflected on the value of their roles in their classrooms and communities as trusted professionals who have the power to guide community discussions in meaningful ways. Teachers found that the guiding questions structuring each day of the workshop would resonate as scaffolding for larger school and community discussions about climate change.
- On Day 1, teachers considered, “How do we know that the climate is changing, and that humans are causing climate change?”
- On Day 2, they addressed, “What are the effects of climate change, and how do we know?”
- And on Day 3, they concluded with, “What do we need to do to prepare for—and slow down—climate change?”
This comprehensive thematic approach offered teachers the opportunity to study closely the causes, consequences, and broader contexts of global climate change and its localized impacts.
Local approaches to addressing climate change empower students
Localized approaches to addressing global climate change empower students and catalyze further inquiry. The biggest impacts that individuals can make systemically include discussing climate change with neighbors and others in their community, decreasing food waste in homes and industrial food production, upping dietary intake of plant-based foods, and minimizing fossil-fuel-based transportation in daily life.
Civic engagement remains the most powerful way to contribute to systemic solutions to climate change. Even without the political power of voting, young students can effect social change through public advocacy and sharing their knowledge and concerns with their families and broader society.
Workshop participants were especially heartened by the findings of the ERI-commissioned survey on Hoosier opinions about climate change. Upon hearing that the majority of Hoosiers recognize the threats presented by climate change, and that Hoosiers underestimate fellow residents’ acceptance of climate change, teachers were eager to dismantle the false narrative that most Indiana residents remain skeptical about climate change. The educators found that some of their most important tasks center on communicating the scientific consensus about anthropogenic climate change and using evidence-laden narratives—or the power of storytelling—to convey the impacts of climate change.
For more about the 2019 EfEC workshop, see Dr. Kirstin Milks’ (@DrMilks) coverage on Twitter using the hashtag #Ed4EnvChange.
Elizabeth Grennan Browning is ERI’s Midwestern/Indiana Community History Fellow, studying how people in the Midwest have thought about environmental issues over time.
The Environmental Resilience Institute is supported by IU's Prepared for Environmental Change Grand Challenge, which brings together a broad, bipartisan coalition of government, business, nonprofit and community leaders to help Indiana better prepare for the challenges that environmental change brings to our economy, health and livelihood.