Recent protests like last week's climate change demonstrations are sparking classroom conversations and highlighting the need for schools to incorporate material on climate change in curricula.
Districts can take advantage of programs and resources already in place, such as Republic Services' Recycling Simplified Education Program, which recently released K-12 lesson plans that include activities, videos and handouts designed by teachers to span subject areas including math, science and language arts.
Similar efforts are taking place in various states to address the responsibility of citizens as agents of change in the environmental crisis. In some cases, state environmental agencies are collaborating with schools to provide teacher training on lesson plans.
Deb Pryor, a former teacher and one of the developers for the Republic Services curriculum, says while students are "very concerned" about the environment and "want to make a difference," she has noticed misinformation among students and even their teachers. Schools and districts are inconsistent with the recycling programs they adopt, and few have curricula in place to feed the curiosity of students.
This is in line with recent findings like those from a Washington Post survey conducted in collaboration with the Kaiser Family Foundation last month, which found roughly 1 in 4 American teenagers have participated in a climate change walkout, attended a rally or written to a public official to express their views on global warming. More than 7 in 10 say climate change will cause moderate to great amounts of harm to their generation, and a majority of teens say it makes them feel angry, afraid and motivated.
Despite this, the number of teenagers who say they are being taught in school how to mitigate climate change seems to be declining. Only 14% say they have learned "a lot" about the topic in the classroom, a decrease from 27% in 2010 when the Yale Project on Climate Change asked the question in a national survey. At the time, 70% of teens said they would like to know more about global warming.
This disparity between student readiness to learn about climate change and what is actually being taught — or not — is reflective of another recent study's findings that suggest educators are missing out on ripe opportunities to engage students in complex civic conversations by adopting a "one-size-fits-all" approach in instruction. Instead, educators should take available curricula and tailor them to the needs and curiosities of students that they teach, experts suggest.
Schools already including ways to tackle climate change in their curricula include those in South Carolina, which work with the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control's Office of Solid Waste Reduction and Recycling to provide lessons and support material, teacher workshops and classroom presentations as part of "Action for a Cleaner Tomorrow" — or, simply, "Action."
Mary Margaret Mendenhall, now a teacher trainer for Action and a former classroom teacher who piloted the program in its infancy, says the curriculum supplement is easy to integrate because it's in line with the state's standards, is easily applicable across subject areas, is "related to things students do every single day" like eating waste-free lunches, and is state-specific.
Margo Murphy, a science teacher for Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport, Maine, says she has also noticed a "climate anxiety" among this generation of students. To address this, her school integrates climate change through different subject areas — including coastal cleanups that turn into elaborate montage sculptures for art class, "Cli-Fi" novels being read in English class, and climate change examined through data visualization in math.
While these and other curricula are widespread and sometimes available for free, programs generated through inter-agency and district collaboration also sometimes offer grants for schools to take advantage of. But it remains important for districts to appropriately vet the materials and tailor them to their local communities before putting the issue in the larger context of the nation and world.