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Education Advocates Enter the Climate Tempest

17 January 2012 11:42 am
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Roberta Killeen Johnson, NESTA

Pushing back? The phrase “climate change” came up often when the National Earth Science Teachers’ Association asked its teacher members what classroom concepts trigger outside concerns.

Is climate change education the new evolution, threatened in U.S. school districts and state education standards by well-organized interest groups? A growing number of education advocates believe so, and yesterday, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) in Oakland, California, which fights the teaching of creationism, announced that it's going to take on climate change denial as well.

"It's not like we're bored," says NCSE Director Eugenie Scott: Five state bills that would allow teaching intelligent design in schools have already surfaced in 2012. But after hearing an increasing number of anecdotes about K-12 teachers being challenged about how they taught climate science to their students, she says she began to see "parallels" between the two debates --namely, an ideological drive from pressure groups to "teach the controversy" where no scientific controversy exists. To get expertise in this area, NCSE hired climate and environmental education expert Mark McCaffrey as its new climate coordinator and appointed Pacific Institute hydroclimatologist Peter Gleick to its board of directors.

"There's a climate of confusion in this country around climate science," says McCaffrey, and NCSE's goal will be to ensure that "teachers have the tools they need if they get pushback and feel intimidated." Recent surveys, such as one done among K-12 teachers in September by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), suggest that attacks on climate education are far from rare. NSTA found that over half of the respondents reported having encountered global warming scepticism from parents, and 26% had encountered it from administrators. And a December survey from the National Earth Science Teachers' Association found that 36% of its 555 K-12 teachers who currently teach climate science had been "influenced" to "teach the controversy."

NCSE expects this task to be much harder than fighting creationism. "The forces arrayed against climate science are more numerous and much better funded," Scott says, and are better able to get their message across in the mainstream media than creationism supporters. Organizations such as the Heartland Institute, which questions whether humans cause climate change, send out free educational materials to teachers and school boards. As Science reported in September, teachers who already struggle with small science budgets and little time for teaching have no time to fend off ideological attacks from students, parents, and administrators. Scott says that one of NCSE's tasks will be to analyze these materials and educate teachers on why they are scientifically unsound. NSTA's survey found that many teachers feel unprepared for global warming skepticism because of a lack of teaching tools.

Government organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), spurred by the 2007 America COMPETES Act, have already been making an increasing number of training programs available for teachers to learn about climate change from NOAA experts. Climate education, says Frank Niepold, education lead of NOAA's Climate Program Office, is "core stuff, not just a fashionable blip." For science education to work, it has to be to be relevant, he says, and "you can't miss this topic. The student body wants to know." Adds National Ocean Service education chief Peg Steffen, "If teachers feel pressure, it's from inquisitive students."

McCaffrey says that NCSE's goal will be to serve as a "clearing-house" for climate teaching programs. He and Scott say that NCSE has no plans to wade into the politics of the issue: whether cap-and-trade systems are better than switching to nuclear energy, for instance. The line between science and politics is not difficult to draw, Scott believes. "Climate change is being promoted as pro-big government, anticapitalist," she says. "But it has to do with atmospheric chemistry."

McCaffrey believes he has his work cut out for him. "We do anticipate the pushback against good climate science will continue if not increase."

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