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Classroom Clashes (Pt. 2): Teaching climate change

June 4, 2012 | Author: Freelance Writer Carrie Madren

Editor’s note: This feature is the second in a two-part series on teachers who face challenges to science in middle and high school classrooms.

One spring Friday, a student in Dawn Richards’ AP Environmental Science class dug his heels in. There isn’t scientific consensus about climate change, he asserted. When Richards showed him the raw carbon dioxide data, he shot back, you can interpret data however you want.

Richards continued to attempt open dialogue, but the stubborn student continued to argue, she later told AAAS. “I would love for him to share with me the things he does think are causing these alterations,” says Dawn Richards, a AAAS member who teaches at Baylor School, a private school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. But students who shut down or argue aren’t really looking at the data, she explains, and instead use sources such as blogs to support their points. “That is typical — the hard science is completely discounted,” she says. 

Student challenges to the validity of climate science such as this are a regular classroom occurrence, reports Richards.

Just as evolution is contentious in some schools, climate change has become the latest topic to spark classroom disagreements. Despite near-consensus in the scientific community, questions about the validity of climate change science and global warming continue to circulate in mainstream media, news, blogs, and publications.

“This is a national issue but always resolves itself in a district or even a classroom,” says Frank Niepold, climate education coordinator for the Climate Program Office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Silver Spring, Maryland. 

As long as individuals continue to debate climate change validity on news stations, radio shows, and online, students will bring these biases into the classroom. That means science teachers across the country must defend science to preserve the truth about climate change — as well as the way the next generation views it. Even though climate scientists and thousands of studies back them up, teachers still face push back.

Science teachers stand their ground

Back in Tennessee, Richards was conflicted. She didn’t want to engage this student, who had pushed back before, but she didn’t want the rest of the class to think that her silence meant she agreed. “This particular student tends to be closed minded … he has a rhetoric in his mind,” Richards says.

So she kept trying to focus on the raw data, which speaks for itself. “Every time [a student challenges climate change], I’ve never had a person have any evidence … they’re vocal about it, but I’ve never had anyone who’s argued well,” says Richards, who was a researcher before transitioning to teaching eight years ago.

Arguments likely came from this student’s parents, who didn’t believe that humans were causing climate change, explains Richards, who notes that many in her southern Tennessee community believe that climate change is not anthropogenic.

Debate is good, but any debater needs to be informed. During this classroom conversation, the student kept returning to politics. Even when Richards tried to steer him back to the science, he couldn’t separate the two issues.

For teachers across the country, classroom struggles could take many forms: students challenging another student, a parent challenging a school or teacher, or even a science department in disagreement.

Over in Nashville, Tennessee, AAAS member Gary Schott teaches a senior elective Ecology/Environmental Issues class at an independent school. “I think that the kids understand the issue and appreciate the argument that rising greenhouse gas levels are probably having an impact on the climate,” he wrote in an email. “I’m sure that some of them have parents who aren’t fans of Al Gore and think it’s all a big scam, but I don’t hear that in my class.” Schott suspects, however, that the students in his elective class may be a self-selected group.