Why climate education? Because it’s even more interesting than molecular biology

#ClimateEdNowMany years ago, when one of my kids was taking 9th-grade biology, I asked him what they had covered in class that day. “DNA replication,” he replied, sullenly. “So boring!”

“Oh my God, you’re kidding me!” I cried. “Boring? It’s completely amazing! Think about it! There’s like a 10-foot-long string of DNA in every single one of your cells, rolled up into a tight little ball, and every time you need a new cell, all that DNA has to be systematically unraveled and copied, then the new copy has to get separated from the original and moved into the newly forming cell. And the DNA isn’t just one string! It’s two strings, wound around each other! It’s a dang miracle it works at all, much less thousands of times a day, right inside your own body! It’s happening right now! It’s not boring at all!!!”

Okay, so maybe every little detail of that explanation isn’t exactly right, but this was an emergency! DNA replication, boring? Perish the thought. And I didn’t even bring up the prediction, then detection, of Okazaki fragments. So cool. Definitely not boring.

As far as I am concerned, science education should never be boring. But even before we get to boring, it definitely should never be wrong. That’s why I’m so passionate about NCSE’s mission — to ensure that evolution and climate change are taught accurately in every science classroom in the U.S. Surveys, including NCSE’s own national surveys, have shown that many, many U.S. public school science teachers are passing on mixed messages, or worse, flat-out falsehoods about the reality of climate change and human responsibility for it. We at NCSE and our partner teachers are doing everything we can to solve this crucial problem, including designing our own curriculum that addresses head-on the misconceptions that years of deliberate misinformation have sown among teachers, students, and community members.

So correcting misinformation is one reason that climate education is particularly urgent. The other essays in this series discuss many other reasons that students need and deserve to receive a thorough and honest education in how our climate is changing and what we can do about it. Their futures depend on it. Climate education also offers a sterling opportunity to teach students critical thinking skills about what, and whom, to believe and why, and how to recognize and resist misinformation and disinformation.

As far as I am concerned, science education should never be boring. But even before we get to boring, it definitely should never be wrong.

I think, though, that there are two more slightly less existential, but still important, reasons that climate education deserves special emphasis.

First, as you might have noticed in my little rant about DNA replication, I think that students will find science exciting when they realize that what initially seems like some random scientific phenomenon turns out to be directly relevant to them — it’s happening in their own bodies, say, or it affects their own future. Suddenly science stops being some abstract set of disconnected facts and becomes something worth learning. And that recognition tends to be contagious. Once a student realizes that one kind of science is actually kind of cool and interesting, other kinds of science tend to become more engaging, too.

And holy guacamole, what could be more relevant and personally impactful than the future of the planet? What students will not want to know what will happen in their own communities, and what they can do to help prevent or prepare for possible harm? Climate is inherently relatable — we all live in it, day in and day out, after all — and learning how scientists study it and learn to predict how it will change over time should be something that almost all students will be interested in. I love molecular biology,but I’m willing to concede that climate is probably more immediately interesting to most students than DNA replication.

So there’s the possibility that climate change will be a sort of gateway drug to being interested in science in general. And second?

Second is the fact that climate science intersects with so many critically important societal issues. Again, when students realize that understanding an area of science is really important to making decisions that they care about, learning about it becomes essential to them, not dull. If you care about the issues presented by genetic engineering, cloning, or even mRNA vaccines, you will find that understanding a little molecular biology is the only way you’re going to be able to contribute to a discussion of the best way forward for our society. And when it comes to climate change, even more ethical and moral decisions will have to be taken: What are our individual responsibilities? What needs to happen at the community, state, national, and global levels? When there are costs and consequences, who should bear them, and who should decide?

These are not questions that can be addressed in the science classroom alone; students will also need to learn about history, economics, political science, sociology and more to be the prepared citizens we will need them to be for the tough decisions ahead. But if they don’t understand the science, and if they don’t learn about the scale and urgency of climate change in their science classrooms, they will not be prepared to engage in these profound discussions as members of their communities grounded in evidence and a deep understanding of how science works.

Read other essays from our #ClimateEdNow series.

NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid
Short Bio

Ann Reid is a former Executive Director of NCSE.