The Politics of Teaching Climate Science
Climate activists see bringing climate change into the classroom as a simple matter of updating the science curriculum. But a recent survey revealed that science teachers are often ill-equipped to deal with the subject. (Photo: NL Monteiro, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)
The majority of Americans are worried about climate change, yet the subject is barely covered in public school science classes. The Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant reports on the powerful forces and opinions that make global warming a potential minefield for teachers.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. When it comes to concern about global warming, a Gallup poll from March this year found that 64-percent of Americans are fairly or very worried about it. That’s the highest percentage in some eight years. But in our schools, a February survey published in the journal Science showed that most high school science teachers spend basically only an hour or two a year teaching about climate change. And when they do, it can mean trouble. The Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant has our story.
GRANT: Craig Whipkey isn’t always the most popular guy at Central Valley High School, about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, in Beaver County. He teaches environmental science in this old steel region, and gets called “tree hugger” a lot. Just a few weeks ago, after he took students on a field trip to an environmental center…
WHIPKEY: I had a student come up to me and the young lady informed me that her dad was coming to pick her up, but would I mind going somewhere else, because her dad didn’t like me very much.
GRANT: Whipkey’s gotten used to it. Nearly ten years ago, when he started teaching high school science, he trained with Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. He brought the climate science back to his students, and some of them started talking about it at home. One parent, a leader in the local Republican Party, even wrote an editorial in the Beaver County Times complaining about Whipkey.
That’s when higher ups in the Central Valley school district took notice. They called him in to review his lesson plans.
WHIPKEY: I was a second year teacher, and I was teaching a brand new course, and the school board and the administration wanted to look at my materials. Absolutely, I was sweating.
GRANT: And Whipkey’s not alone. Other Pennsylvania science teachers have been challenged for teaching climate change. Many times, it becomes an issue when a district is ordering new textbooks. Just last month, members of the Quakertown area school board, north of Philadelphia, refused to order the environmental science and oceanography books requested by the district’s administration. They didn’t like that students would be taught climate change as a scientific fact. Quakertown Board members declined to talk with us for this story.
But something similar happened in the Saucon Valley School District, south of Allentown. Bryan Eichfeld, a school board member there, calls climate change a hoax, and a political issue. He wants textbooks that provide competing views.
EICHFELD: That’s not what’s happening with climate change. They are taking everything that they can to prove that there’s climate change and ignoring the data that disproves it.
GRANT: Science teachers in Eichfeld’s own district, and at the national level say, there is no other side. This isn’t politics. It’s science based on data and evidence. Minda Berbeco is policy director with the National Center for Science Education. She takes issues when school board members call the lack of balance “unfair.”
BERBECO: You know, it’s really unfair not to teach kids the accurate science. It’s really unfair to not demonstrate what the evidence shows and what the data shows.
GRANT: Berbeco says when school boards choose science textbooks, they’re really deciding how students will understand climate change. For example, researchers surveyed four middle school science textbooks in California, and they found a lot of wishy- washy language.
BERBECO: It depicts scientists as unsure, so ‘scientists think’ not ‘evidence shows’ or ‘research has shown.’ Students come away with a real misunderstanding of climate change. They think scientists are unsure about it, you know, they think that there’s a controversy.
GRANT: And beyond textbooks, many teachers don’t know enough about climate change themselves, and don’t feel confident teaching it. David Evans is director of the National Association of Science Teachers. He says the average teacher graduated in the early 1990s.
EVANS: And honestly twenty years ago climate science, in fact most environmental science was not very heavily featured in teacher preparation programs.
GRANT: Plus, in Pennsylvania, the incentive is low. Many states have passed new science standards that include climate change, but not Pennsylvania. And the Biology Keystone exam, a test that teachers must prepare students to take, doesn’t really address climate change either.
Teacher Craig Whipkey, that tree hugger in western Pennsylvania, says there are plenty of reasons teachers choose to skip climate change.
WHIPKEY: I think it is ‘don’t rock the boat,’ I think it’s the easiest path, I think it is, however you want to put it, it doesn’t get a lot of press that it’s not in there, but it would get a lot of press if it was in there.
GRANT: Whipkey says it’s too bad because young people will need to understand climate change to make informed decisions in the future. Still, he’s optimistic. He says the superintendent and school board members who gave him trouble when he first started teaching climate science ten years ago have all been replaced. I’m Julie Grant.
CURWOOD: Julie Grant reports for the Pennsylvania public radio program, the Allegheny Front.
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