Four ways to improve climate education in the U.S.

Four ways to improve climate education in the U.S.

Students at a public middle school in Durham, North Carolina, work on a math assignment. Integrating evidence-based climate change curricula into other subjects, like math, is one way to strengthen climate change education in the United States. Photo credit: Jessica Scranton for FHI 360

Climate change is one of the most serious threats facing humanity, and it is only getting worse. To protect the future of all living things, we need to take collective action. Scientists and policymakers must implement a systemic response to the immediate needs, but it’s also imperative that educators equip young people to tackle the crisis.

The good news: It won’t be difficult to inspire young people to step up to the task. They are already on the frontlines of climate change activism. Now, it is critical that American education systems improve climate change education so that young people have the knowledge and skills to prevent and mitigate the long-term effects of climate change.

The question is how.

This week, FHI 360 released a report outlining four evidence-based recommendations for ensuring that all young Americans have access to the high-quality education they need to lead the way on climate action. It is up to policymakers, educators, funders, and nongovernmental and grassroots organizations to determine how best to achieve them.

1. Promote support for climate change education at national, state, district and school levels.

Every tier of the American education system has a part to play in strengthening education on climate change. Federal policymakers have the responsibility to set a national agenda and lead a more comprehensive, coordinated approach to guiding climate change education. State policymakers should leverage their control over state standards and classroom curricula and enact legislation to advance climate change education.

In districts and schools, leaders and administrators must maximize access to quality climate change education by selecting science curricula (when the state doesn’t do it for them), supporting teacher training and designing policies that incentivize action.

2. Provide access to high-quality curricula and materials that are grounded in scientific evidence.

Climate change education must be evidence-based to provide learners with a foundational understanding of indisputable scientific facts about the climate crisis. There is an overwhelming amount of educational material available, but it can be challenging to distinguish facts from misinformation.

State policymakers and district administrators need to demand and supply science curricula that accurately describe the causes and implications of climate change and prepare students to design actions and solutions.

While science must serve as the foundation of climate change curricula, decades of research have shown that hope is also critical to climate education and that curricula are more effective and engaging when they focus on solutions, not just challenges. We need creative, participatory and action-oriented curricula that give students greater voice and underline their power in the fight against climate change. 

3. Support educators with training and professional development.

Quality curricula is only one part of the equation. Educators need training, resources and confidence to effectively teach about climate change. As of 2016, fewer than half of all science teachers in the U.S. had received formal training on climate change education, and one-third of surveyed teachers didn’t acknowledge human activity as the primary driver of climate change. 

Emerging evidence suggests that such training should focus on increasing teachers’ scientific knowledge about climate change’s causes and implications as well as changing their attitudes. Education leaders and policymakers must help educators, especially those in underfunded districts, build these skills by connecting them with training opportunities, professional development and ongoing support. 

4. Scale up interdisciplinary and out-of-school time models.

Mitigating the risks of climate change and preventing future harm will take an innovative, interdisciplinary approach. When teachers from different disciplines, like history or the arts, collaborate with science teachers to integrate climate change education into their subject areas, they welcome students with different interests and perspectives to the conversation.

In addition to the classroom, climate education should also happen in out-of-school programs. Museums, summer camps, zoos and community gardens are all places where youth can learn about climate change in different contexts. Internships and apprenticeships also offer opportunities for students to apply climate change lessons to real-world problems.

A greener future

At FHI 360, we understand that incremental adaptation to climate change is not enough to transform entire systems. The American education system is no different. We will continue to advocate that everyone involved in education — from policymakers to district leaders to after-school educators — makes high-quality climate change education a priority. Doing so will help ensure that all young people, especially those from marginalized populations, have access to science-based climate education.

Leaders must also listen to young people’s perspectives, empower them to express their ideas and concerns, and provide them with meaningful opportunities to learn and get involved. Through education, we can empower young people to have hope for their futures while continuing to work toward sustainable environmental solutions.

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