When educators tell me about the challenges they experience in teaching climate change, what they lament is not the complexity of the material, or the political pushback, but rather the depressing nature of the topic. The implications of climate change are enormous, the obstacles to mitigation seem insurmountable, and the potential for adaptation feels limited. These educators recognize climate change as an incredibly important topic—possibly the greatest of our age—but they worry about how to address it in a scientifically accurate manner without leaving their students dismayed, discouraged, and depressed.
That’s a valid worry. But one organization has already figured out how to engage students about climate change in a way that maintains scientific accuracy while avoiding the three Ds of dismay, discouragement, and depression—while making students “hot and bothered” about climate action. That organization is the Alliance for Climate Education (ACE)—which happens to have won NCSE’s Friend of the Planet award this year.
What does ACE do?
Its main activity is conducting the one type of event that everyone dreads—school assemblies. (Reflecting back on your high school experience, is there anything you remember being worse?) But ACE gets it. Far from being a forum for uninspired droning, ACE assemblies are half performance art, half Broadway show. They are actually—dare I say it?—fun!
I have to admit I was skeptical at first. When I first started at NCSE, I went to an ACE presentation. I sat in the back of the high school auditorium while an interactive video presented by an incredibly energetic and inspiring young woman played at the front of the room. But I wasn’t paying attention to the presentation; I was paying attention to the students. Were they watching carefully? Were they asking questions? Were they getting something out of it—or were they, as I expected, goofing off and zoning out?
To my surprise and delight, the students were listening; they were engaged; they were asking each other questions.
So what makes ACE work so well?
“We understand what young people want,” Leah Qusba, ACE’s Strategic Director, told me. “In just seven years of innovation and testing, we were able to bring to market something that students and schools love.”
What started with conducting high school assemblies has grown substantially over the years to include organizing action teams that tackle everything from simple school-wide energy audits to large-scale industrial composting projects. This year ACE also has 100 Climate Fellows working in three areas: encouraging a climate education mandate at the state level, supporting the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act, and promoting investment in renewable energy and divestment from fossil fuels. These would be ambitious goals for even the most passionate climate change activist, and yet these are high school students who are forging ahead!
This coming year, ACE is expanding even further to include virtual online “assemblies” for schools in more remote communities where the ACE educators can’t easily reach.
“Our biggest challenge right now is capacity,” Qusba said. “It’s tough being an organization that serves tens of millions of high school students across the United States. So we are taking our award-winning assembly and converting it to an online version to expand our reach.”
This is great news for the thousands of educators who are longing for quality information on climate change that won’t dismay, discourage, and depress their students—something that not only addresses the science of climate change but also offers positive suggestions about what students can do about it.
ACE does a fabulous job working with students and educators to address climate change. Kudos to them for winning this year’s Friend of the Planet award!
For more on the Alliance for Climate Education, visit its website at acespace.org