New NCSE lesson sets increase student climate literacy

Two students analyzing climate data on a laptop.

Headlines today describe the current state of our planet’s climate as the greatest existential threat to mankind. While this phrasing may trigger a variety of emotions, no one can deny that our entire way of life is going to be affected by climate impacts over the next twenty years, regardless of whether humans mitigate the climate crisis or not.

Climate literacy — which is important to all people because climate impacts all people — is the first step towards tackling these concerns. When people understand the climate system, they're able to make informed decisions about what contributions they can make in response to climate change as well as address their own climate anxieties in the process.

One of the major roadblocks to such understanding is the spread of misinformation, which can slow or stop travel altogether. Teachers often lack the tools to accurately identify and address students’ misconceptions in a positive and non-confrontational manner. With that need in mind, the National Center for Science Education developed, and has just launched, five lesson sets that help students overcome and become inoculated against the most common climate change misconceptions. I am proud to be a part of the team who worked on these units of study.

The Climate Change Lesson Sets are written for teachers by teachers, incorporating best practices in science education, including Next Generation Science Standards storylining. They elevate climate literacy, guiding teachers and students past climate confusion and building core knowledge in its place. Students are guided to study climate using the same tools that scientists use to study climate; they learn about solutions that not only are possible but also are in use today. Informed by the Next Generation Science Standards and utilizing best practices for science education, each lesson set tackles common misconceptions that students may bring to the classroom in an engaging and positive environment.

In developing the lesson sets, we collaborated with a team of expert science educators, including award winners, district leaders, and classroom veterans. Every lesson set is the result of additional partnerships with other stakeholders in climate education, researchers in the field, and allies in science communication. For example, Lesson Set 2: Understanding Scientific Modeling features a collaboration between NCSE Teacher Ambassador Dave Amidon and The King’s Centre for the Visualization in Science, resulting in an applet in which students can investigate the factors that influence atmospheric temperature. Lesson Set 3: Back to the Future – Climate Edition includes an adapted lesson in which students gather tree ring data and compare it to a master chronology, building the case for reconstructing past climate using proxies, a collaboration with Nicole K. Davi, a research scientist at the Tree-Ring Laboratory at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Lesson Set 4: Climate Change in Your Own Backyard brings climate change to the local level, allowing students to investigate real events in their neighborhood using engaging activities; each activity in this lesson set has been created by a veteran teacher using current research about extreme weather events.

In developing the lesson sets, we collaborated with a team of expert science educators, including award winners, district leaders, and classroom veterans.

Although the majority of science teachers address climate change in the classroom, they aren’t doing so fully and accurately. Our own research shows that teachers are not always well prepared to teach climate change and may therefore have misconceptions of their own. And let’s be honest: teachers are not the only ones who are sharing information with students regarding climate change. Students receive messaging from a variety of sources which may or may not be truthful. Unfortunately, students’ misconceptions persist and roll over into adulthood; currently 38% of U.S. adults do not accept anthropogenic climate change. I am not so far removed from the classroom that I do not remember the climate misconceptions students bring: the hole in the ozone is causing climate change, current warming patterns are natural, and scientists do not agree about the causes of climate change, among many, many others. Teachers are faced with a rising tide of difficulties and deserve an engaging approach to tackling students’ misconceptions that is at the same time flexible and easy to use. Our new climate change lesson sets offer just that.

What’s next for the lesson sets? They, along with their activities and investigations, are currently undergoing evaluation by our team of curriculum field testers, veteran classroom teachers who are teaching with them. The field testers will provide feedback on the efficacy of the lessons and ways in which we can improve them. Additionally, we expect to begin the development of evolution, climate change, and nature of science lesson sets for middle school classrooms. These units of study will adopt the same approach: inoculating students against misinformation.

The Teacher Support program has even more on the horizon. We also plan to support teachers with much needed professional development in order to utilize the curriculum with fidelity. In the 2022–2023 school year, we will begin initiatives to offer ongoing professional development at a district level as well as support pre-service teachers so they enter the classroom with the confidence to address students’ misunderstandings. It is with this 3-dimensional approach — misconception-based curricula, ongoing professional-development, and pre-service teacher training — that we will attempt to increase climate literacy.

We are already feeling the impacts of global warming, and if things continue the way they have, the impacts will only become more extreme. This decade may very well be the deciding factor in regard to our ultimate climate outcome. According to the IPCC’s most recent report, “The magnitude and rate of climate change and associated risks depend strongly on near-term mitigation and adaptation actions, and projected adverse impacts and related losses and damages escalate with every increment of global warming.” The technology needed to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change is available now, but the way forward is obstructed by misconceptions about anthropogenic climate change: it’s not real; it’s natural; it’s not so bad; it cannot be undone. But climate change is not a cliff off of which we will inevitably fall. There is potential for action, for change, for transformation. Anthropogenic climate change is real, it’s not natural, it’s grave, and it can be undone. The project of undoing it starts with climate literacy.

NCSE Curriculum Specialist Cari Herndon
Short Bio

Cari Herndon is a former NCSE staff member.