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Resistance to Climate Change Science Has Trickled Down to the Classroom

Climate change is proving to be the new Darwin of the classroom with teachers running into obstacles when the issue comes up, much the same way teaching evolution has been met with pushback.

For teachers like James Sutter of Wellston, Ohio, tackling the issue of climate change in his high school classroom comes with its share of debate from skeptical students.

“Scientists are wrong all the time,“ Gwen Beatty a junior and straight-A-student in Mr. Sutter’s class argued when the topic was brought up. As he presented the evidence that 97 percent of climate scientists agree with, Beatty continued to challenge him, barking off “it’s like you can’t agree with a scientist or your denying science.”  

The normally pleasant student later bolted from his class when he choose to show an episode from the Emmy-winning series Years of Living Dangerously.

He’s not alone in the challenges he faces when it comes to the topic in the classroom. Eric Madrid, a teacher in Texas, says while he hears students call it an agenda of fake news, that usually fades away as the semester goes on and the adopts more of a “show, don’t tell” approach. For Madrid, the biggest obstacle seems to be the teachers. "I get much more pushback from other teachers than students,” he told CNN. “Adults have already pretty much made up their minds, and we also don't have the time to sit down and discuss the issues.”

Chalk it up to President Trump’s tweets of the past denying the issue, his EPA head Scott Pruitt discussing his skepticism, or the recent backing out of the Paris climate agreement, but it’s contributing to a trickle down effect on the issue in schools. And how schools go about teaching climate change varies widely from state to state with some giving extensive coverage to it and others paying it as little attention as possible.

Because public K-12 education standards are set at the state, and not federal level, the amount of teaching devoted to a topic is often different from state to state. Lawmakers in Florida recently passed a bill that would make it easier for people to challenge textbooks and possibly censor certain topics. Earlier this year Idaho’s House Education Committee voted to remove climate change and references of human impact on the environment from a new set of science standards.

This isn’t to say that climate change is being ignored in public school classrooms, it’s touched upon in 98 percent of high schools according to a study by the National Center for Science Education. What students are hearing though are mixed messages regarding the issue.

“Our survey found that relatively few teachers had even a college course that devoted as much as a single class to climate change," Glenn Branch, the center's deputy director, confessed. While 63 percent of teachers in the study emphasized that global temperatures have risen in the last 150 years, only about one in four teachers agreed strongly with the statement. Thirty percent of classroom teachers reported that they emphasize many scientists believe the increase in global temperature is likely due to natural causes.

There does seem to be a shift though with a number of states coming to a consensus of classroom standards regarding science in schools. So far 19 states have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, meaning they now share the same standards for teaching earth sciences and climate change. Branch commended the progress, citing the NGSS as a “gold standard” in science education.

For teachers like Mr. Sutter and Mr. Madrid, they say they’ll continue to let the evidence do the work when it comes to convincing skeptical minds about climate change. "I don't tell them anything, just tell them to get the data [from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association]," said Madrid. "Any location they choose data from will show that it's real."


Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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