Prove your humanity

While most Americans agree with the vast majority of scientists that climate change is happening, a poll by the Pew Research Center found only about half believe humans are causing it. And that’s influencing not only how we talk about climate change in the political sphere but also the classroom. Recently, we got a chance to talk with Eric Plutzer, a professor of political science and sociology at Penn State University, who surveyed 1,500 public middle and high school science teachers about how they cover climate change with their students.

Allegheny Front: So how are the majority of teachers approaching climate change in their lesson plans?

Eric Plutzer: Three in four science teachers are introducing the topic to their students. Overall, most students will be exposed to climate change several times in their middle and high school careers. The typical teacher, though, is only covering the topic for about one or two hours.

AF: So why is climate change getting short shrift in the classroom?

EP: It gets short shrift in part because it is a new science that is not firmly established in the curriculum; also, because the most likely place to teach it is in an earth science class, and that is probably the class that high school graduates are least likely to take.

AF: Are teachers accurately conveying the scientifically accepted facts about climate change to their students?

EP: Not consistently. Of the teachers who do spend some time on the topic, about 85 percent are telling their students that fossil fuels are the major cause. But of that group, a substantial number are also telling their students that many scientists think that the predominant cause is found in nature and natural fluctuations. So when students are being exposed to this topic, roughly 30 percent are receiving mixed messages from their teachers.

LISTEN: “Where Climate Education is Falling Short”

AF: So why is that? Is it because teachers don’t have the training and background to teach climate change?

EP: I think that is part of it. It’s helpful to keep in mind that when many teachers were in college and universities themselves—and many would have been in school in the 1980s—scientists were not as certain as they are today. And it’s understandable that they would have been exposed to scientific instruction that emphasized that all the facts were not yet in on climate change. In addition, climate science sort of falls through the cracks. A typical high school biology or chemistry teacher, for example, when they were in college, would have had to complete their major, and would have had to take courses in developmental psychology and pedagogy and classroom management. They would have had to devote time to shadowing teachers and doing their own student teaching. And that would have left them very little room to take an elective in climate science. A majority of our teachers had no formal training in climate science when they were in college. And lacking that training, they get their information from a lot of the same places that members of the general public do. And that can be a difficult place to navigate, with lots of politicized comments as well as scientific ones.

AF: What about the teachers themselves? Are they skeptical or uncomfortable with climate science, and could that be coloring their teaching?

EP: We asked teachers, to the best of their knowledge, what proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities? And there have been a number of studies on this, and the numbers have come up where 95 percent of climate scientists—or even 100 percent [agree]. But fewer than half of our teachers gave the right answer. And many of them perceived far more disagreement in the scientific community than actually exists. If they think that scientists haven’t agreed on the basic contours of climate change, then it’s understandable that they would open up their classroom to, for example, allow students to debate what the major causes are.

AF: The survey results don’t really bode well for teaching future scientists of America. So what can be done about this?

EP: Well, this is going to be a long-term challenge. Again, it’s useful to put this in context. The science itself is moving very, very rapidly over the last three decades. There have been hundreds, maybe thousands, of studies that have given us more precision. So the first step should be in the pipeline for new teachers, and we would encourage colleges and universities to coordinate their curriculum so that future science teachers are able to get a thorough introduction to the science of climate change while they’re in college. For those teachers who are already in the classroom, we were very pleased that a majority of teachers told us that they would be very interested in taking professional development courses so they can get up to speed on the science and the best ways of teaching it. Certainly, school districts and state boards of education can do their part by adding specific learning goals for different grades so that students are guided through a cumulative curriculum, each year building on the last one, which we do not yet have. And I think taking those steps would go a long way to helping prepare the next generation of citizens to really engage in the policy debates they’re going to have, as more and more communities are faced with consequences such as rising sea-levels or changing agricultural conditions.


Eric Plutzer is a professor of political science and sociology at Penn State University. The results of his survey of science teachers was published in the journal Science.