Most students in the U.S. are learning about climate change in schools, according to a new survey. But the quality of that climate science education is, for many students, questionable.
The survey, published Thursday in Science by researchers at Penn State University and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), collected data from 1,500 science teachers across the United States. It found that three out of four science teachers — including 70 percent of middle school and 87 percent of high school teachers — spend at least an hour on climate change instruction. That, said Minda Berbeco, programs and policy director at NCSE and a co-author of the study, is good news.
“Most teachers are covering climate change. That means that most students are going to leave high school with at least interacting with climate change once, an that’s fantastic,” she told ThinkProgress.
But the challenge arises, Berbeco said, when you look at how these teachers are teaching climate science. Thirty percent of the teachers surveyed report teaching students that climate change is “likely due to natural causes,” and another 31 percent said they teach the issue as unsettled science.
“The science is super clear about the human component of climate change, and in some cases some teachers are confusing that message for students and confusing it themselves,” Berbeco said. “That’s too bad, but now that we know this is happening we have a starting point to work with teachers on it.”
There are a number of reasons why teachers aren’t teaching their students that 97 percent of actively-publishing climate scientists agree that climate change is being caused by humans, and that the data overwhelmingly points to human-caused warming. Many teachers are unaware of the scientific consensus behind climate change, the survey found.
“When asked ‘what proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities?’ — only 30% of middle-school and 45% of high-school science teachers selected the correct option of ’81 to 100%,'” the study notes. “Even among teachers who agree that human activities are the main cause of global warming (a large majority of all science teachers), only 52% know the percentage of scientists who share their view.”
Teachers also may not know about the wide range of evidence pointing to humans’ impact on climate change — the ice core data, decline in Arctic sea ice, rise in temperatures, and other compelling data. And some may feel pressured by their community or school administrators to teach climate as a debate, so as to not offend students or teachers politically.
“It certainly could be a teacher’s own political perspective, or their perception of the politics of their community,” Berbeco said. “It might just be something that they’re not willing to deal with having a parent call them on the phone.”
But for teachers who don’t understand the science behind climate change, more opportunities for professional development and more outreach from climate scientists could help. Already, there are efforts to ensure that teachers have access to the best data on climate change: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Climate Stewards program, for instance, provides online tools and professional development opportunities for teachers, including workshops, webinars, and grants for teachers to undertake climate-related projects with their students. And it’s important for communities to support teachers too, Berbeco said.
“If teachers know the community is going to support them, that they’re not going to be yelled at by a parent or administration, they can [teach] in a forthright manner,” she said.
Updated science education standards could also help: the Next Generation Science Standards, which were put together by 26 states and a number of science and education organizations, provide guidelines for science education that include the teaching of climate science. So far, 15 states have adopted the standards, and others are using them as a basis to develop their own updated standards.
The one thing Berbeco doesn’t want to come from this survey, however, is a criticism of the nation’s teachers.
“When putting out a survey like this the concern is that people are going to start targeting teachers as doing a bad job,” she said. “That was really not our goal at all by doing this survey. Teachers are in a really tough position. Our purpose was not to target or attack, but to figure out what’s going on, and figure out next steps to help them to teach the good stuff.”