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Finding Hope in a Climate of Uncertainty: Reflections on Climate Change Education and Action with Children

Written by Carlie D. Trott, a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow with the Colorado State University STEM Center and Department of Psychology. Website: Twitter: @CRDTRO

This past weekend, I got the chance to feel like a kid again. While in Los Angeles for the annual National Science Teachers Association  (NSTA) conference, it was hard to contain my exhilaration as I roamed a football field-sized exhibit hall with reptile terrariums, astronaut gear, racing robots, and steamy experiments. Memories of school science flooded my mind, and I had to do a double-take near the registration table when indeed I caught a glimpse of the conference’s keynote speaker and science icon himself: Bill Nye. Themed “Sun, Surf, and Science,” the conference embodied the best of the science classroom—wonder, adventure, discovery—all in one noisy and cheerful place. More importantly, it was a convergence of educators from across the United States who are daily on the front lines against the anti-science and post-truth sentiments that currently have a foothold in our nation’s capital.

Between sessions, a recurring topic of conversation was the recent campaign launched by the Heartland Institute—a climate change denying thinktank—to distribute to 200,000 K-12 science teachers a book entitled “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warm­ing.” The reaction from teachers with whom I spoke ranged from dismay to rage, feelings that were grounded not only in a solid grasp of the science of climate change, but in a sense of concern that some teachers may fall for it. While volunteering at the exhibit booth for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a middle school science teacher approached me to ask, “Just one question: Is global warming happening?”

The unfortunate findings of a 2016 report by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) are clear from its title: “Mixed Messages: How Climate Change is Taught in America’s Public Schools.” According to its authors, less than half of U.S. science teachers are aware of the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is caused mostly by human activities, and more than a quarter of teachers allocate “equal time” in the classroom to perspectives that raise doubt about this consensus. A possible explanation, the researchers noted, was that most teachers had little if any formal training on climate change, and many lacked confidence to teach about it. At the same time, more than two thirds of those surveyed were interested in professional development on the issue. The report concluded with recommendations for science teachers’ increased access to climate change educational resources, as well as professional training on the science of climate change and classroom strategies for dealing with its ever-increasing politicization.

Research I’ve conducted on children’s climate change engagement landed me in the NOAA booth that day, and the NCSE report was on my mind while responding to the friendly and inquisitive teacher. Before long, other science teachers joined the conversation to share resources and classroom experience. As it turned out, rather than questioning the veracity of climate change, the teacher was seeking an evidence-based response from the NOAA booth to address an individual student’s uncertainty. With some new instructional resources and a satisfied smile, the teacher disappeared into the exhibition hall crowd.

This raises yet another reason I got the chance to feel like a kid again this weekend: feeling awed and inspired by classroom teachers. As an adult, however, my admiration was for somewhat different reasons. In a largely underpaid and under-appreciated field, teachers often love their work and do it well. Perhaps many are motivated by larger forces, a wider understanding lost to so many adults long since removed from school, that the classroom is much more than a colorful room with scheduled activities for daytime learning. Perhaps they’re in on the “secret” that’s not really a secret at all, if you think about it. That the role of educators in society is one of society-making. That, as a collective force, the teachers among us have an indelible influence on the culture at large.

I was invited to the conference to present my dissertation research, which consisted of an after-school program for youth climate change education and action, conducted as part of the NOAA Climate Stewards Education Program. Named Science, Camera, Action!, the program was carried out in partnership with Northern Colorado Boys and Girls Clubs, and combined hands-on science activities with digital photography as a platform for individual and collaborative climate change action. The youth-led action projects by the ten- to twelve-year-old participants included a city council presentation, a tree-planting campaign, website development, a photo gallery opening, and a Boys and Girls Club community garden. Beyond expanding kids’ perspectives on the role of science in society and supporting their interest in STEM education and careers, the program strengthened their sense of agency to make a difference in the world around them. At the conference, I planned to encourage teachers to provide action opportunities to youth while teaching about climate change.

Embarking on my dissertation project, I hoped to strengthen kids’ knowledge about climate change, support their engagement, and empower their confidence as change agents. In short, I wanted to inspire kids in the way that classroom teachers often do, except using methods that teachers often cannot through the flexibility afforded by informal learning spaces. Departing for Los Angeles last week, I hoped to motivate teachers to integrate climate change into their elementary science classrooms, offer evidence of positive student-centered outcomes, and encourage linking kids’ enthusiasm for problem-solving with (even small) opportunities for action. In brief, I aimed to share my experiences and offer compelling reasons to engage. It’s likely that I achieved some of these goals. But in the Boys and Girls Clubs and at the conference, something unexpected happened.

Through the youth-led action projects, I became abundantly aware of kids’ potential to transform their communities, if given the opportunity. Through simple activities, they understood climate change as an urgent environmental and social problem, and they wanted to be a part of the solution. They became vocal advocates and active agents of change in their families and communities. Their eagerness to create change—and to lead the process—was beyond inspiring. During the conference, I learned of a dizzying array of climate action projects being led by teachers, from school gardens to anti-idling campaigns to “greening” the lunch line and setting up composting systems. Sessions focused on climate change and science denial were packed to capacity, with educators sitting in aisles, standing along walls, and spilling out into the hallway. The motivation I wished to inspire was already there, and it gave me hope. In other words, the inspiration and motivation I’d carefully planned to generate among children and teachers became the impact they had on me.

Despite the political climate, from Colorado to California, climate change education and action with children felt far from controversial. From the conference hall to the classroom, pathways to a sustainable future are being paved and trod along, bridges built and traversed. I want to live in the society being constructed in these spaces. While at the airport returning home, it seemed oddly appropriate to stumble across, in my social media feed, an aphorism by the teacher, politician, and philosopher Confucius: “If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If your plan is for ten years, plant trees. If your plan is for one hundred years, educate children.”

The worst part of feeling like a kid is the frustrating sense that your own decisions and actions are beyond your control. Amidst the slew of recent anti-science cabinet and agency appointments, executive orders, and the proposed federal budget cuts, it’s easy to feel a similar sense of frustration—that external forces are converging to stamp out possibilities for a sustainable future. The devastating impact of the new administration on the planet and its people is, like climate change itself, undeniable and difficult to imagine. And yet, in my own tangible experience, first with the children of Northern Colorado and most recently at NSTA, I saw people rising up—taking steps to transform themselves and their communities.

The best part of feeling like a kid is the all-encompassing sense of wonder and possibility about the world and your place in it—the feeling of endless energy to ask big questions, experience new things, and invent the perfect future. It is a belief that, despite it all, you can change the world. The sources of this infinite and seemingly impossible hope are often hiding in plain sight. I found it in the Boys and Girls Clubs last year, and again this weekend in small interactions and crowded events in the bustling LA Convention Center. I carry it with me as I endure the headlines. I use it as fuel to start new projects.

The story of our sustainable future is still being written. Rebecca Solnit once noted that, “hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” In this way, finding hope in the present is a matter of rediscovering our surroundings to notice the transformative potential of everyday interactions and inventive projects. In these uncertain times, as we imagine and work towards creating a sustainable global society, we must recognize about the world what kids so easily do: that, individually and collectively, we make it up as we go along. The rules—perhaps not of nature, but certainly of social institutions—are ours to change. As a twelve-year-old in my program put it, “To save the world, you don’t need a superpower. You don’t need anything like that. All you need is yourself and others to support you. That’s all you need.”



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