The creative challenge in teaching climate change

By Jennifer Leonard

“Yikes, so in other words, we are all going to die,” said one of the teen interns for our after-school science program. I had shared a map of the city of Boston that showed climate change scenarios for the city, with likely areas of coastal flooding, storm surge flooding, and highest-heat neighborhoods. I proposed that we talk about the difference between optimism and pessimism. Not, in this case, an easy, happy optimism, but an optimism that converts “Yikes, we are all going to die” into “Yikes, what can we do?”

But my description of the city’s plans for sea walls and raised-elevation greenspaces along the shoreline was met with looks of doubt. They agreed with the need for clean energy alternatives and energy conservation; but seemed overwhelmed by the idea that carbon emissions worldwide would affect sea-level rise here in our city.

I asked the teens what they wanted our middle-school and elementary-school aged science program participants to know about climate change. They weren’t sure, and the conversation was left open. So for the past several weeks, we have been diving into areas of climate change science that I hope will contribute to a sense of empowerment rather than gloom.

Too often, students learn of current events and social problems through narrowly organized lessons, with pre-digested facts about of a problem such as climate change or pollution or hunger or homelessness. Independent thought is limited to a guided reflection about ‘what can I do’ about the problem, based on possible solutions presented within the lesson. A more empowering approach starts with understanding how things work when things are working well. This is true for all kinds of problems. Before you can fix something that is broken, it helps to know how it works when it is not broken.

For climate change study, that means understanding the role of the Earth’s atmosphere in regulating temperatures, with the understanding that the atmosphere’s natural greenhouse effect makes Earth inhabitable. It means reviewing the basics about the cycle of seasons, day and night, high and low tides and wind and weather patterns. It means reviewing the natural processes by which elements such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen move to and from the atmosphere, plant and animal life and soil, rock, coal, oil and mineral deposits. It means understanding the variety of options for energy generation, starting with the physics behind fossil fuels, solar, wind, water and other energy options. With this knowledge, it becomes easier to study climate change and to envision ways to harness natural processes to mitigate and reverse climate change.

As I look for approaches to climate change study, I realize that some of our favorite science program activities support these areas of study. For example, a summertime project about sundials and eclipses helped to reinforce a basic understanding of the movement of the earth, and of day, night and seasons. Our optics kit illustrates the ways that light travels through air, water, lenses or mirrors. A simple experiment with a green plant and bicarbonate detector in an enclosed clear container illustrates the change in carbon dioxide in photosynthesis. Our chemistry kits illustrate the construction of atoms and molecules of water, carbon dioxide, oxygen and sugars. Our rock collection includes limestone and other items that will fizz under vinegar, indicating the presence of organic materials. Our electronics kits have hand-cranked generators and solar batteries that can power lights, motors, alarms, music boxes and other components, and an engineering kit includes the design of a water-powered mill.

As an informal after-school program, we sample various science topics, often returning to favorite topics, loosely guided by student interests, current events, and available materials and project ideas. A classroom science course will follow a more formal curriculum. The creative challenge in either setting is to find a way to blend a wide exploration of the science underlying the study of climate change with a specific study of current climate change issues and to tie it all together in a way that empowers students to feel in control of their knowledge and to envision strategies and solutions.

Jennifer Leonard lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where she blends her consulting business with active volunteer and professional involvement in community projects. She chairs a local urban park advisory committee, and through that organization, coordinates a children’s gardening program and a weekly children’s science program. Her business, The Skills Library, provides databases, online portfolios, curriculum planning portals and other tools for schools, youth programs and nonprofit organizations. Many projects focus on the theme of skill development, reflecting the name “The Skills Library” and the founding goals of the business.