Embodying Climate Change Education: Stories in the Secondary Science Classroom

Climate change education. What do these three words call to mind? When you hear these three words, how do you feel? What actions or behaviors do you associate with these three words? 

Before we dive into the need for and practices of climate change education, let’s pause to take stock of what informs our understandings and practices. Who are the key people that have shaped your perspective? What experiences, large and small, are part of your thoughts, feelings, and actions about the environment or, more broadly, creation?

In a 2019 survey of teachers, students, and the general public in Canada, over 79 percent were concerned about impacts of climate change and 78 percent believed that climate change posed increased risks to humans. When asked about the role of education in response to the concerns of climate change, many expressed their confidence in educators—65 percent of Canadians and 76 percent of educators specifically. 

 If people acknowledge the concern and recognize the threat, what are the barriers that impede its implementation?

So why is there not more climate change education? If people acknowledge the concern and recognize the threat, what are the barriers that impede its implementation? The educators in the survey above voiced concerns ranging from limited knowledge and skills (only 32 percent were confident) to the need for increased support. Resources for in-service as well as pre-service teachers could include access to data, current climate science, policy, and professional development. Even before the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, research showed that the challenges to implementing climate change education were complex and not easily resolved even with additional time, resources, and professional development. 

These trends are reflected in other regions worldwide. In 2020, UNESCO surveyed 1600 educators from 93 countries and territories (Learn 12). While 36 percent indicated that environmental issues were not included in training, 95 percent of teachers “believed that it is important or very important to teach about the severity of climate change and its effects” (UNESCO, Learn 6). In addition, the levels of confidence, from Australia to Africa, were only slightly higher than the Canadian survey above—40 percent were confident in teaching climate change, one third could explain climate change in their own region, and 20 percent felt their knowledge or skills were sufficient.

[S]tudents want climate change taught in their schools. Many, in fact, are demanding that schools address this vital, practical, world-changing subject.

Yet despite the challenges that educators are facing with climate change education (CCE), students want climate change taught in their schools. Many, in fact, are demanding that schools address this vital, practical, world-changing subject. They are looking to teachers and administrators to help them understand and make sense of climate change. In a 2020 survey of over five hundred youth (ages 15–24) in Alberta, for instance, students identified that “teachers are one of the most trusted sources of information about climate change” (ACEE 1). 

Many of us feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of climate change, and much more the task of teaching our students. As mentioned above, the knowledge and skills about climate change are either new, rapidly changing, or sufficiently cross-disciplinary for most teachers. It is not uncommon to think that climate change is best left to the enviro, outdoor, and earth science educators. Even when you have spent time preparing to teach about climate change, it is easy to feel under qualified or “not committed enough.” I certainly delayed my own engagement with creation care because I didn’t feel I was “there” yet. I thought I needed to be doing more. While it is true that I could do more, that was no reason to wait. The day I chose to trust God’s prompting and take one step toward engaging was a key.

Creation care flows from our role on earth as God’s stewards, made in his image and filled with his Spirit. In the Old Testament, God calls humans to “cultivate and tend [the garden]” (Gen. 2:15 NASB). In Isaiah, creation and the land are described as a vineyard that God has lavished upon his “beloved” (5:1–7). Jesus, in the New Testament, continues to develop the theme of humanity as steward over the vineyard in many of his parables (Matt. 25:14–30; Mark 12:1–12). Tending to creation is part of the mandate for reflecting God’s loving care in our world (Wilkinson).

 It’s climate. It’s warming. It’s us. It’s bad. Experts agree. We can fix it.

What exactly is climate change? Wynes and Nicholas summarize climate change with six core statements (1): It’s climate. It’s warming. It’s us. It’s bad. Experts agree. We can fix it. According to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) plain-language summary, climate change reflects “widespread changes across atmosphere, land, oceans, and ice regions” (4). These changes are the result of the impact of greenhouse gasses, biodiversity loss, and increased pollution by humans. The MIT climate primer by Kerry A. Emanuel expands beyond science to include climate risk and solutions; the Aspen Institute’s K12 Climate Action Plan is focused on mitigation, adaptation, education, and advancement of equity. While CCE includes more than science, excellent CCE is informed by accessible, up-to-date, research-based summaries (see also National Academies; NASA; Hayhoe). 

As a science educator, two significant streams that inform CCE come from the fields of environmental education and science education. Whether nature study or conservation education, place-based education or eco-justice, environmental education drives CCE toward action and behavior change, connection with nature, environmental outcomes, social outcomes, and environmental skill (Clark and Harley 331). Sustainability and education for sustainable development frame climate change within a larger social and ecological context, where the focus is less on knowledge transfer or behavior change and more on building the capacity in students, schools, and communities for sustainability. As many readers will know firsthand, these educational traditions provide both strategies and theoretical frames that help ground and guide our teaching and student learning. 

While there are excellent resources reflecting a whole school approach (see UNESCO’s Getting Climate Ready: A Guide for Schools on Climate Action by Natalie Gibb or SEPN’s Responding to Climate Change: A Primer for K–12 Education by Kristin Hargis and Margie McKenzie), some schools may not be ready to implement CCE across the school. The strategies below can be practiced whether you are a small school with limited resources or a concerned teacher with few like-minded colleagues.

Over fifty years ago within science education, educators recognized the need to acknowledge a more humanistic dimension. The emphasis on science, technology, and the environment within the context of society (STSE) is the foundation of the incorporation of values such as stewardship in science education. Often when we think of CCE, it is the issues—such as human waste and plastics pollution or the role of renewable forms of energy in transportation—that are the most interesting yet the most difficult to teach. 

One strategy within issue-based STSE is the incorporation of role play in student-directed collaborative discussion and debate. To support student learning, we used the following resource: In the spring of 2018, over five hundred people across Alberta were involved in fifty-five discussion groups, called Narrative Workshops (Marshall et al.). In addition to a full report, the Project produced various summaries reflecting the positions and values of the participating stakeholders—from business leaders to environmentalists, oil sands workers to new Canadians (6–11). 

For a role-play activity in the classroom, students were assigned a role and started with these summaries to kickstart their research. They worked in expert groups to develop their familiarity with the position, sharing research and practicing their responses. Then they were ready to join mock discussion groups where they would play the role of the stakeholder they researched. Students could work in pairs if they wanted additional social support, with both representing their role in the discussion. The mock discussion groups then proceeded through a series of questions similar to the Narrative Workshops. At the end of the role play, students debriefed back in their expert groups with those who shared the same role. 

The role play was a lively and moving experience for students. The discussion (and at times debate) exposed students to the diverse range of perspectives. Many expressed that playing the roles opened their eyes to another view in a way that a traditional lecture or even discussion wouldn’t. They were able to see the person behind the position, the person with a face and a story. 

In your own context or region, I encourage you to look at the key issues around climate change, such as plastics pollution, waste diversion, loss of natural habitats, alternative energies, drought- and fire-resistance, and disaster risk reduction. Find those who have facilitated similar conversations and discussions. Ask for resources to learn more about the values, beliefs, and especially stories that help students to learn about the people embedded in these contexts. Build students’ self-confidence and raise their awareness of social responsibility and action. [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

Andrew Kirk is Assistant Professor of Education at The King’s University (Edmonton, AB). His interest is in secondary science education as a trained chemist (BA, Harvard University; MSc, University of Alberta). He also has an MDiv (biblical languages) from Regent College (Vancouver, BC), and has taught in biblical studies at St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta. His current research focuses on climate change education and sustainability, both in pre-service teacher training and in secondary and post-secondary schools.

Works Cited

Aspen Institute. This is Planet Ed. https://www.thisisplaneted.org/

(This is the 2022 rebrand of K12 Climate Action Plan)

Alberta Council for Environmental Education (ACEE). “Roadmap to Excellent Climate Change Education.” 2020, www.abcee.org/sites/default/files/ACEE_Roadmaptoexcellent_climatechangeeducation.pdf. 

Chopin, Nicola, Kristen Hargis, and Margie McKenzie. Building Climate-Ready Schools: Towards Identifying Good Practices in Climate Change Education. The Sustainability and Education Policy Network (SEPN). University of Saskatchewan, 2018.

Clark, William C., and Alicia G. Harley. “Sustainability Science: Toward a Synthesis.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources, vol. 45, 2020, pp. 331–86, doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-012420-043621. 

den Heyer, Kent. “Doing Better Than Just Falling Forward: Linking Subject Matter with Explicit Futures Thinking.” One World in Dialogue, vol. 4, no. 1, 2017, pp. 5–10.

Emanuel, Kerry A. Climate Science, Risk and Solutions. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 2020, climateprimer.mit.edu/climate-science-risk-solutions.pdf. Accessed 10 Nov. 2022. 

Gibb, Natalie. Getting Climate Ready: A Guide for Schools on Climate Action. Paris, France, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO], 2016, unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000246740. Accessed on 10 Nov. 2022.

Hargis, Kristen, and Margie McKenzie. Responding to Climate Change Education: A Primer for K–12 Education. The Sustainability and Education Policy Network (SEPN), Saskatoon, SK, 2021. sepn.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/SEPN-CCEd-Primer-January-11-2021.pdf. Accessed on 10 Nov. 2022. 

Hayhoe, Katherine. “Global Weirding.” YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/channel/UCi6RkdaEqgRVKi3AzidF4ow. Accessed on 10 Nov. 2022.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Climate Change 2021: Summary for All. IPCC, 2021, www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/outreach/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SummaryForAll.pdf. Accessed on 10 Nov. 2022.

Marshall, George, Amber Bennett, and Jamie Clarke. Communicating climate change and energy in Alberta – Alberta Narratives Project. Oxford, Climate Outreach.  2018, climateoutreach.org/reports/alberta-narratives-project-core-narratives/. Accessed 10 Jan. 2022. Website includes videos, podcasts and summaries (as noted above).

NASA. Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Earth Science Communications Team, California Institute of Technology, 2022, last updated 16 Nov. 2022, climate.nasa.gov/. Accessed 20 Nov. 2022.

National Academies. Climate Change: Evidences and Causes, 2020, https://nap.nationalacademies.org/catalog/25733/climate-change-evidence-and-causes-update-2020. Accessed 10 Nov. 2022. 

The Nature Conservancy. Let’s Talk Climate: A How-To Guide. 2018. See https://www.nature.org/en-us/what-we-do/our-priorities/tackle-climate-change/climate-change-stories/can-we-talk-climate/ for link to e-book. Accessed 29 Nov 2022.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Learn for Our Planet: A Global Review of How Environmental Issues Are Integrated in Education, Paris, France, 2021. unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000377362. Accessed on 10 Nov. 2022.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Futures Literacy: Anticipation in the 21st Century. Social and Human Sciences Sector, Paris, France, 2019, unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000372349. Accessed on 10 Nov. 2022.

Wilkinson, Loren, editor. Stewards of the Earth: Christianity and Creation Care. Lexham, 2022. 
Wynes, Seth, and Kimberly A. Nicholas. “Climate Science Curricula in Canadian Secondary Schools Focus on Human Warming, Not Scientific Consensus, Impacts or Solutions.” PLoS ONE, vol. 14, no. 7, 2019, doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0218305. Accessed on 10 Nov. 2022.