Teaching Climate Change Brushes Politics

By Preston, Caroline | Sunday Gazette-Mail, July 7, 2019 | Go to article overview

Teaching Climate Change Brushes Politics


Preston, Caroline, Sunday Gazette-Mail


PIEDMONT, Okla. - "Weather is chaotic, said Melissa Lau, a sixth-grade teacher in this bedroom community outside of Oklahoma City. "What does that mean to you?

"It's another word for crazy,' " said one boy.

"My sister got hit by a golf-ball-sized piece of hail, volunteered a kid with glasses and a tuft of dyed-blond hair.

The students didn't know it yet, but they were about to engage in some myth-busting about perhaps the biggest menace to their futures: climate change.

Lau, 42, has taught science for seven years at Piedmont Intermediate School, which is housed in an airy, modern building overlooking a wheat field and serves predominantly middle-class families, many of whom work in the oil and gas industry. For much of that time, she has sought to acquaint students with the basics of the planet's warming.

On this next-to-last week of the school year, Lau was squeezing in a lesson exploring the link between increased carbon emissions and extreme weather events such as floods and hurricanes. A goal was to give students the knowledge to debunk the argument often made by climate change deniers that a few frigid days disprove climate change; even in a warming climate, there will still be many cold days.

Schools across the United States are wrestling with how to incorporate the study of climate change into the classroom as its proximity and perils grow ever more apparent. According to a recent NPR/Ipsos poll, 86 percent of teachers and more than 80 percent of parents say the subject should be taught in school. But survey results in 2016 showed that while three-quarters of science teachers said they included lessons about climate change, they devoted little time to it and faced an array of obstacles.

The science behind climate change is complicated and evolving, and most teachers aren't prepared to teach it well. Many textbooks don't touch the topic, according to science educators.

"Climate and earth sciences more generally have been historically neglected in American science education, said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, which tracks anti-science education legislation and develops curriculums like the one Lau was teaching. "Lots of teachers feel they don't have the content knowledge or pedagogical know-how to teach climate change effectively.

And then there are the politics, especially in ruby-red Oklahoma. Educators here say they occasionally receive questions and pushback from parents when classes cover climate change. A state agency funded by the oil and gas industry pumps money into teacher training and classroom materials, including books featuring a cartoon character called Petro Pete, with the goal of promoting fossil fuels. And state lawmakers routinely introduce bills that critics say would encourage teachers to spread misinformation on evolution and climate change.

"Every year, we have to fight one or two bills, Lau said. But she added that even here in Oklahoma, there's a growing hunger for accurate information on climate change: "I don't get the resistance I got at the beginning of my career because it's getting harder and harder to deny.

Wearing a denim jacket with an "I teach climate change button, Lau showed her students a video that used a discussion of sports doping to explain the probability aspects of climate change. Steroids can make it easier for players to hit home runs, the video explained. But it's impossible to know if any single home run is due to doping. So to assess the effects of the drugs, one has to observe a player's performance over time. Same with climate change: Some extreme weather events occur regardless of whether humans are pumping extra carbon into the atmosphere. Scientists can determine if these emissions are affecting the climate only by following patterns over time.

As they scooted out of the classroom on the first day of Lau's two-day lesson, a few of the sixth-graders said this was the first they had heard of climate change. …

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