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Forget Textbooks. Teaching Climate Change Takes Creative, Hands-On Approach

Apr 24, 2019

An NPR poll this week found that most parents want their children to learn about climate change at school, but that many teachers don't discuss it because they think it's beyond their subject matter or expertise.

According to some local science teachers in the Tampa area who have been teaching climate change for years, the topic requires instructors to get creative, encourage debate and hands-on activities. They say their strategy is to go beyond the textbooks. That includes lab experiments, field trips, computer simulations, and a focus on finding solutions to climate change.

Tracy Flanagan has been teaching marine science and climate change for over a decade.
Credit Tracy Flanagan

"If it's hands-on, I feel like the kids are going to remember it more than like, reading articles about it or somebody just sitting up there talking. If they can actually do it and see how it might occur, they are more likely to remember it, and then also buy into it," said Tracy Flanagan, who teaches marine science to juniors and seniors at Strawberry Crest High School in Dover.

She says climate change is mentioned in Florida's state standard textbooks, but "it is very vague."

"As far as looking for things to do or ways to teach it, there are oodles of stuff on the Internet that you can steal, different activities, fit them to whatever you might have available in your classroom. That is pretty much what we all do."

Several years ago, Flanagan was one of the Hillsborough County teachers who took part in a National Science Foundation funded grant, along with the University of South Florida, to come up with new ways to make climate change interesting and relevant to students.

Part of the outcome was to incorporate climate change in every lesson on marine science. 

"We break marine science up, so we talk about history and then we talk about geology and chemistry and physics, so every one of those sections has a climate change section to it," Flanagan said.

Climate change comes up in lessons on storm surge, sea level rise, mangroves and more.

"Every single one of our units all year long, there is a hands-on lab, stuff that the kids actually do and it relates it to climate change in Florida. It actually seemed to work in getting the kids to think about how it is not going to just impact polar bears, but them."

Jessica Miller teaches climate change as part of her environmental science classes at St. Petersburg High School
Credit Jessica Miller

At St. Petersburg High School, Jessica Miller says she makes sure all sides of the issue are covered in her environmental science class.

"No ideas are pushed on them. I simply just take data and present them with data and then kind of let them draw the conclusions from that data rather than saying, 'This is what you have to think.'"

Miller said kids can comprehend lessons about pollution and saving energy as early as elementary school. But climate science can be complicated and is probably better suited for middle and high school.

She says students -- ranging from sophomores to seniors -- often come into class with some misconceptions about climate science. But she rarely encounters children who deny its existence.

When questions do arise, she tries to let students know their views are respected, so they can have a constructive debate.

"What are the pros and cons of using coal? Why do we use it? And then we look at what can we do instead so they don't think it is hopeless or scary. They think, 'These are the changes I could make or these are the small things I could do.'"

One field trip that students particularly enjoy involves a visit to Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, where students inject carbon dioxide into a water sample in order to study its effects. Students are often fascinated by the oceans and coral reefs, and want to find ways to protect them, Miller said.

"Reading a textbook or me giving them notes and me telling them about something -- it doesn't always stay with every student. All the information we have, you have to present it in multiple ways or it is not going to stick," Miller said.

And she encourages other teachers, who may be hesitant to incorporate climate change in their lessons, to give it a try, whether their subject is history, math, economics, art, or otherwise.

"This topic is something that the kids are actually living in every single day, so finding a way to add in your classroom, it can almost connect to anything," she said.

"And because it is relevant to them, they are going to want to grasp onto it and learn more about it."