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Why Science Teachers Are Struggling With Climate Change

LA Johnson

Many middle and high school science teachers are getting climate change wrong.

That's according to the results of a new, national teacher survey backed by the National Center for Science Education and published in the journal Science.

Before we get to those results, a quick, climate science refresher is in order.

NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce says the world's major scientific organizations are now clear on global warming:

"They've all said: It's happening, and it's being caused by human activity. Add to that the fact that most of the published literature that you see in the big journals, like Science and Nature and Geophysical Research Letters, is all showing a consensus. It's overwhelming."

How overwhelming? According to this and this, roughly 95 percent of climate scientists believe global warming is happening and that humans are to blame.

That's why this new survey of some 1,500 middle and high school science teachers, representing all 50 states, is surprising. Roughly 3 in 4 say they talk about global warming in class, though typically only for an hour or two. But the study's lead author, Eric Plutzer of Penn State, says barely a majority are getting the science right.


"A little more than half are sending clear messages that human consumption of fossil fuels is the major cause of recent warming," Plutzer says.

What are the rest saying?

Well, roughly 30 percent tell students that humans are only partly to blame for climate change, along with natural causes. The problem with that, Plutzer says, is that it sends mixed messages, suggesting that the causes of climate change are still up for debate — when there is no debate among the vast majority of climate scientists. As for the rest ...

"About one in 10 [teachers] seem to be denying a human role altogether," while the remaining 5 percent don't talk about causes at all.

Why the disconnect between science teachers and climate science?

"Very few of our teachers had formal training while in college," Plutzer says, "and so the burden of learning the science falls to them."

Robert Clifton is in his third year teaching science at Rose Park Magnet Math & Science Middle School in Nashville. In college, he majored in biology but says he didn't get much climate science.

"I took an ecology class, but that was the extent of it," Clifton says. "As far as teaching it to the students, no, not a lot of it."

Molly Sloss is in her second year of Teach for America, teaching eighth grade science at Success Preparatory Academy in New Orleans. In college, she says, she took two good science courses, but that's it.

Luckily, Sloss says, "my mother was a middle school science teacher, so I pulled on her a lot."

So, Problem One: little to no formal training. Problem Two: science textbooks.

"The minute they're published, they're outdated," says Susan Oltman, who teaches sixth-grade science at Kittredge Magnet School in Atlanta.

And, Oltman says, for teachers who abandon their books, "it takes a whole lot of time to cull through resources and pull the best ones for your classroom."

That means staying current on the research. That is one reason, a few years ago, Oltman actually spent time at sea studying with climate scientists.

While Oltman tends to avoid debate — or talk of debate — when she covers climate change, Clifton, in Nashville, feels differently.

He recently asked his students to debate whether climate change is largely human-made or the result of natural causes. The exercise, he insists, doesn't send mixed messages.

To the contrary, Clifton says, debate is a powerful tool that can help students learn to tell the difference between hard science and something they hear on television or at the dinner table.

"Where are you getting this from?" Clifton routinely asks his students. "If you're hearing this from your mother's second cousin twice removed, that's not a credible resource."

Before their debate, many of Clifton's students weren't sure about humans' role in global warming.

After reading the research and listening to the arguments, each student had to vote for a winner. And Clifton says every one of them came down firmly on the side of science.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
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