Monday, June 05, 2017

Teaching about climate change, a highly politicized topic, can be tricky; stories look at how to do it

James Sutter and his students on a field
trip (NYT photo by Maddie McGarvey)
Teaching about climate change can be difficult in rural areas where the topic has become highly politicized. The New York Times and The Washington Post have stories about it, from different perspectives: a teacher with rebellious students in Appalachian Ohio, and one in Northern Idaho who deals with skeptical parents and changing state standards. Both stories get at the interaction between teachers, students and parents, and provide ideas for how the story can be told in other places.

In Wellston, Ohio, straight-A student Gwen Beatty challenged teacher James Sutter's instruction, and he "occasionally fell short of his goal of providing Gwen — the most vocal of a raft of student climate skeptics — with calm, evidence-based responses," Amy Harmon reports for the Times. "Gwen, 17, could not put her finger on why she found Mr. Sutter, whose biology class she had enjoyed, suddenly so insufferable. Mr. Sutter, sensing that his facts and figures were not helping, was at a loss. And the day she grew so agitated by a documentary he was showing that she bolted out of the school left them both shaken."

Despite such resistance, "Public-school science classrooms are also proving to be a rare place where views on climate change may shift, research has found. There, in contrast with much of adult life, it can be hard to entirely tune out new information," Harmon writes. "Some 20 states, including a handful of red ones, have recently begun requiring students to learn that human activity is a major cause of climate change, but few, if any, have provided a road map for how to teach it, and most science teachers, according to one recent survey, spend at most two hours on the subject."

Jamie Esler and students (Washington Post photo by Rajah Bose)
Among the states not adopting the new standards was Idaho, where "in February, the state legislature urged the state board of education to rewrite the science curriculum to eliminate what one lawmaker called 'an over-emphasis on human-caused factors'," Sarah Kaplan writes for the Post. Her story is about biology teacher Jamie Esler, who takes his students into the field to witness the effects of climate change in Kootenai County, where "fewer than half of adults think that human activities contribute to global warming, surveys show."

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