Teach about climate change and injustice to position students as agents of change

#climateednowThese days, my inbox is filled with emails from K–16 students who feel the urgency, anxiety, and impacts of the climate crisis. They share in great detail about what they’re hearing and seeing on social media and in the news. They express their frustrations over not knowing what to do to move the system or where to go to learn more if they don’t get the depth of knowledge they want at school. They’re overwhelmed and anxious about their future, and they feel compelled to do something. Although my responses vary from student to student, the overall message is always grounded in hope through meaningful solutions starting from wherever they are. I know that many of us recognize that young people are more than capable not only of learning but also of taking action on climate change. This important message is one that students need to hear more often, tied to opportunities to develop solutions in meaningful ways.

My work with educators allows me to support them in teaching to 21st-century concerns of climate and environmental literacy, justice, and action. Much of the current curriculum focuses on explaining climate and environmental science, but often stops short of addressing climate and environmental justice. Students need opportunities to explore the social and ethical dimensions of science issues — in fact, doing so supports their development as scientifically literate citizens who will one day vote on public policies. These are the very issues that students care about now, and they shouldn’t have to choose between content or context. The science content should help them to improve or enhance their lived realities in culturally relevant and meaningful ways.

Educated at schools in the inner cities of Los Angeles, I never learned about the disproportionate environmental inequities in my own community. I grew up next to the 110 freeway, where people suffer from higher asthma rates, and then moved to a neighboring city next to the train station and downwind from the local refinery — the “sacrificial zone.” When I went back to teach in my own community, I was devastated to learn that these environmental inequities would be further exacerbated by climate change. For me, this was a call to action. Upon learning more about climate and environmental science and the inequitable and unjust systems in place that disproportionately affect marginalized communities, I was motivated to activate the agency of my affected students. Rather than shy away from the ethical dimensions of the science topic, I leaned harder into them to engage students in issues they wanted to learn more and do something about. I didn’t have all the answers for them, but I pushed them to critically analyze the information they were exposed to and to develop diverse solutions as we dove deeper together. The lessons I learned from their bravery, kindness, and leadership continue to fuel my drive and passion in this field.

Rather than shy away from the ethical dimensions of the science topic, I leaned harder into them to engage students in issues they wanted to learn more and do something about.

Today, my incredible team at the University of California, Irvine Science Project (UCISP) works closely with K–12 school leaders, teachers, and students to think about programs and initiatives that highlight systemic issues in order to ground student learning experiences. One example is our partnership with the Magnolia Agriscience Community Center (MACC). UCISP and MACC are supporting the development of a community farm and garden that seeks to educate and address food insecurity for up to 30,000 students every year. This partnership connects UCI researchers and staff with school district teachers, students, and community members to learn about access, sustainability, and regenerative approaches to producing food and energy in a changing climate.

Climate change is a complex and intersectional topic without straightforward solutions. We can support students to be the agents of change we need and know they are capable of being by teaching them about climate science and justice. The demand by our students and communities to learn about the climate crisis can no longer be ignored, and if we wait until we have learned everything about climate change to begin teaching the topic, it will be too late. Just as we recognize the capacity of students, we must recognize that teachers are on the front lines and in the best position to help students respond to the climate crisis. If you’re an educator looking to meet the crisis at this moment, start by…

  • recognizing and unveiling the current systems in place with students.
  • recognizing students’ deep cultural wealth of knowledge and acknowledging different forms and ways of knowing and learning.
  • identifying community environmental injustices that students currently face.
  • helping students identify local community organizations that currently advocate for climate or environmental justice.
  • using culturally relevant climate and environmental phenomena to anchor units that allow for iterative and cyclical learning opportunities.
  • being open to co-constructing the learning experience with students and positioning them as the drivers of their own learning as you facilitate and guide them. (Remember, you don’t have to know everything about climate change to start teaching about it.)
  • anticipating the high level of climate/eco-anxiety that comes with learning about the climate crisis and lean into solutions as one way to lower anxiety through action.

It’s time to reimagine science education to meet the needs of the 21st century for a more just future.

Read other essays from our #ClimateEdNow series.

Kelly Le
Short Bio

Kelley Le has been in the educational field for a decade as a high school science educator, instructional coach, and educational leader. She is currently the director of the University of California Irvine Science Project and also author of the book, Teaching Climate Change for Grades 6-12: Empowering Science Teachers to Take on the Climate Crisis Through NGSS (2021). She serves as an executive committee member for the University of California-The California State University Environmental and Climate Change Literacy Project initiative, a board member at Ten Strands, and a Climate Reality Corps Mentor.