Climate Science Education in the US is Pretty Crappy, Survey Finds

High school student from Colorado taking part in a science bowl. (Photo: National Renewable Energy Lab/flickr/cc)

Climate Science Education in the US is Pretty Crappy, Survey Finds

'At least one in three teachers bring climate change denial into the classroom'

The results of the first nationally representative survey on climate education in U.S. schools are in, and reveal, according to one noted scientist, that "we are failing students."

The survey of 1,500 middle and high school science teachers in 50 states was conducted by the Penn State Survey Research Center (SRC) and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), and the paper on the findings was published in the Feb. 12 issue of the journal Science.

It shows that little time was devoted to teaching climate science; while nearly three-quarters of the teachers devoted one or more lessons to recent global warming, the median amount of time they devoted to that was just an hour and a half, an amount, the authors write, that is "inconsistent with guidance from leading science and education bodies."

The messages being taught are problematic as well.

"At least one in three teachers bring climate change denial into the classroom, claiming that many scientists believe climate change is not caused by humans," stated NCSE programs and policy director Josh Rosenau. "Worse, half of the surveyed teachers have allowed students to discuss the supposed 'controversy' over climate change without guiding students to the scientifically supported conclusion."

Specifically, the survey found that 31% of teachers said they emphasized "both sides"--both the scientific consensus that human activity has driven global warming and the false belief that climate change is due to natural causes. Twelve percent said they didn't emphasize human causes at all.

Why? The authors write that just 4.4% of teachers said they felt pressure from outside actors including parents and administrators to teach "both sides," and said the problem could be because of lack of knowledge of specific evidence. They also found that only 30% of middle school and 45% of high school teachers were aware of the extent of the scientific consensus on climate change.

They add: "combine this with the fact that almost one-sixth (15%) believe that it is mostly driven by natural causes, and another one-sixth thought that human and natural causes are equally important."

"If a majority of science teachers believe that more than 20% of climate scientist disagree that human activities are the primary cause, it is understandable that many would teach 'both sides,' by conveying to students that there is legitimate scientific debate instead of deep consensus," the authors write.

Fixing the situation means looking at the root causes of the problem--which involves addressing the values and political ideologies teachers hold. The paper notes:

A question measuring political ideology was a more powerful predictor of teachers' classroom approach than any measure of education or content knowledge, with those leaning toward "It's not the government's business to protect people from themselves" most willing to teach "both sides."

"Teachers didn't create the polarized culture war around climate change," adds Rosenau. "But they're the key to ending this battle."

Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, writes about the survey's findings at New Scientist Friday, and argues that

[o]ur educational system is a microcosm of wider society. If we are to restore objectivity to how we teach our children about topics like climate change, we must restore objectivity to our broader public discourse. Fortunately, there is a growing willingness among opinion leaders and US media to name and shame those acting in bad faith, like the billionaire Koch brothers, who fund groups intent on misleading the public.

Our children will bear the brunt of the climate crisis, battling coastal inundation, the damage done by more extreme weather, increasingly withering droughts and devastating floods. We owe it to them not only to give them the facts, but to help them begin to clean up the mess that we created.

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