What do American middle schools teach about climate change? Not so much.

Bertha Vazquez, seventh grade science teacher at George Washington Carver Middle School in Miami, October 27, 2022. (Eva Marie Uzcategui / The New York Times)

In mid-October, just two weeks after Hurricane Ian hit her state, Bertha Vazquez asked her class of seventh graders to go online and search for information on climate change. Specifically, she tasked them with finding sites that question her human causes of her and paid for them.

It was a sophisticated exercise for 12-year-olds, Vazquez said, teaching them to discern climate facts from a mass of online disinformation. But she also thought it was a major milestone by the end of the two weeks she’s dedicating to teaching her Miami students about climate change, possible solutions and obstacles to progress.

“I’m really passionate about this problem,” she said. “I have to find a way to sneak in.”

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That’s because in Florida, where Vazquez has been teaching for more than 30 years, and where his students are already seeing the dramatic effects of global warming, the words “climate change” don’t appear in the state’s middle or elementary school education standards.

Climate change is set to transform where students can live and what jobs they will do as adults. Yet, despite being one of the most important issues for young people, it appears only minimally in many science standards of state middle schools nationwide. Florida doesn’t include the topic, and Texas dedicates three bullet points to climate change in its 27-page standard. More than 40 states have adopted standards that include a single explicit reference to climate change.

“Middle school is where these kids are starting to understand their moral compass and uphold that compass with logic,” said Michael Padilla, professor emeritus at Clemson University and former president of the National Science Teachers Association. “So middle school is a classic opportunity to focus more on climate change.”

For those who receive formal instruction on climate change, it will most likely happen in middle school science classrooms. But many middle school standards don’t explicitly mention climate change, so it’s largely up to teachers and individual school districts to find ways to integrate it into classes, often working against the double hurdle of limited time and inadequate support.

Vazquez makes the state’s request to teach energy transfer an opportunity to talk about how wind turbines work. The requirement of ecology becomes an opportunity to discuss the consequences of deforestation.

But his commitment to the topic is not representative of how climate change is taught in the country. According to a survey by the National Center for Science Education, about half of middle school science teachers either don’t cover the subject or spend less than two hours a year on it.

It’s not enough time to teach the essentials, said Glenn Branch, the center’s deputy director. They need to learn, at a minimum, the fundamentals of climate science, including the role humans play, the consequences of a changing climate, as well as the solutions.

It is clear that people want to be taught about climate change. About 80% of American parents think schools should teach about climate change, a sentiment shared by students.

“Children are asking for more and wanting more,” said Sarah Ruggiero, a science teacher for the Eugene School District in Oregon.

Even education experts say it is crucial to address climate change in the classroom. Children are already learning this from TV and are seeing it in the changing weather around them.

“Students around the world know it’s a problem,” said Michael Wysession, professor of earth sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, author of 30 textbooks and helped write the Next Generation Science Standards, a series of recommendations for science teaching. “The challenge is to keep them from getting depressed about it.”

Over the course of a year, a middle school science class can expect to cover everything from photosynthesis to the electromagnetic spectrum, all in 180 days.

The general arguments are dictated by educational standards, the largest mechanism by which a state can influence what children learn and which teachers spend their time on.

A decade ago, 26 states and several groups representing teachers and scientists presented next generation science standards. Since then, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted standards or similar.

But at the middle school level, even Next Generation standards only include one standard out of about 60 that explicitly mentions climate change. An analysis by University of Maryland researchers found that 17 other standards have a connection to climate change, but let states, school districts and teachers make those connections in their classes.

However, some of the more populous states continue to write their own, and a review of those standards found that climate change doesn’t play as much of a role. In some cases, this is because the standards have not been updated, Branch said. States typically review them every 10 years or so, but Florida’s current standards were adopted in 2008.

In other cases, however, the role of climate change in standards is still under discussion. Last year, the Texas State Board of Education voted on new scientific standards. A board member who is also an advocate for oil giant Shell managed to reduce the requirement that eighth grade students learn to “describe efforts to mitigate climate change.”

Such seemingly minor changes in the language are important. They might not make much difference to a teacher who has already invested in climate change teaching, said Katie Worth, author of “Miseducation: How Climate Change is Taught in America”. “But she gives a foothold to those who are prone to climate skepticism.”

In 2020, the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network released a report ranking states on how their standards dealt with climate change. Half of the states got a B + while 10 states, including Florida and Texas, got a D or worse.

A resume doesn’t exist until it enters the classroom. And since so many Middle Schools Next Generation Science Standards have links to climate change but don’t mention them explicitly, it can be a great opportunity for teachers.

But the researchers found that many teachers received little climate education.

“The most crucial intervention we need to make progress on is professional support for teachers,” said Frank Niepold, senior climate education program manager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But he warns that this may be the hardest piece of the puzzle to solve.

Some states, including Washington, California, and Maine, are turning to teacher training programs.

National science educators have praised ClimeTime as one of the best efforts. The program receives several million dollars annually in state funding. It has trained 14,000 teachers since 2018, or more than a fifth of the teachers in Washington state.

When Jerry Walther, a natural resources teacher in Taholah, Quinault Indian nation, trains other teachers on how he teaches about climate change, he tells them how he regularly takes his students out. “Each community has its own climate and culture,” he said. “And that culture is interesting for its students.”

When his students look at the ocean and rivers, the class inevitably starts talking about climate change, how the water is warming, and harmful algal blooms that everyone has witnessed, he said. “We haven’t been able to fish for sockeye for three years. How is it affecting our way of life and how can we ourselves try to change it?

According to the teachers, one of the main challenges is the lack of good supplementary materials.

Brianna Escobar, a sixth-grade science teacher in Garland, Texas, uses textbooks published in 2015, which are based on standards that are more than a decade old.

So it’s no surprise that teachers turn to online materials. But the information they find may be outdated, inaccurate, or simply not suitable for children. The Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network, an organization that provides free materials for climate education, found that only 700 of the 30,000 free online materials surveyed were accurate and suitable for use in schools.

In the world beyond the classroom, thinking about climate change involves much more than just understanding the science of climate and the greenhouse effect. It is about changing our energy systems and preparing for waves of climate migration. It is also about solutions, developing policies to adapt to extreme weather events and decarbonising much of our economy.

That is why climate education is now expanding into areas such as the arts, humanities, and social studies. Starting this year, New Jersey is incorporating some aspects of the effects of climate change, as well as solutions, into its standards for each grade and disciplinary area. National organizations representing English and social studies teachers have called for greater engagement with climate change in their classrooms.

These developments are an encouraging and necessary step forward, Vazquez said. Teaching about climate change is at the heart of the school’s purpose: to help children make sense of the world around them, preparing them for the future.

“This is the topic of the century, and not just because of the potential disasters that lie ahead,” he said. “But because this is the future of the economy”.

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