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Teaching climate change a tricky endeavor in politically charged world

Durango schools allow students to reach their own conclusions
Animas High School students from left, Elliot Smith, 15, Sam Sturm, 16, Robert Cossey, 15, and Bryan Gnehm, 16, sort through ideas from classmates that would help solve climate change as part of Tina Hott’s biology class.

At Durango’s schools, it’s up to students to decide whether climate change is real.

“Naming climate change as a thing, you won’t see that anywhere stated explicitly,” said Leanne Garcia, director of curriculum for Durango School District 9-R. “It’s more about giving them the opportunity to engage in evidence-based decision-making … and helping them become independent thinkers.”

Over at Animas High School, biology teacher Tina Hott said lessons are a little more pointed that climate change is real and happening. But, students aren’t preached at or forced into a system of beliefs.

“Self-discovery is huge,” Hott said. “The way I go about it, I flood them with data and ask them to come to their own conclusions.”

Teaching climate change, across the country, is tricky business.

Despite the virtually unanimous agreement in the scientific community that the planet is warming at an unprecedented rate, and that rising global temperatures are a result of human activities – namely, the burning of fossil fuels – climate change has become a highly polarizing and political topic.

As a result, it’s a slippery slope to walk for teachers who want to inform the next generation about a potential crisis it may face.

“It’s what keeps me up at night,” Hott said. “But I’m not here to convince them of beliefs. It’s my job to be honest and give them the facts.”

A message of silence

Earlier this year, NPR and Ipsos, a market research firm, conducted some of the first surveys ever to gauge whether parents and teachers wanted climate change taught in schools. And the answer, despite political affiliations, was clear.

An estimated 80% of parents – including two in three Republicans and nine in 10 Democrats – agreed climate change should be taught to students. What’s more, about 85% of teachers said the topic should be included in curricula.

But there was a troubling trend: More than half the teachers surveyed said they don’t cover climate change in their classrooms, or even talk about it with students. And, fewer than 50% of parents said they breached the topic with their children at home.

“When it comes to one of the biggest global problems,” the report said, “the default message from older generations to younger ones is silence.”

Hands-on science

The situation at Durango’s schools is less dire.

At 9-R, lessons involving climate change are incorporated from kindergarten until the time students graduate, Garcia said.

Animas High School biology teacher Tina Hott said it’s not her job to force beliefs on students. Instead, she presents the facts about climate change and lets students come to their own conclusions.

Lower grade levels will take part in lessons like comparing different climates around the world and collecting weather data, looking for trends. As students get older, they start more hands-on exercises in the field, perhaps the most effective way to teach science, Garcia said.

Just in the past year, students went on a field trip to the 416 Fire burn scar north of Durango, looking at the drought conditions that led up to the fire.

“If we get them thinking like scientists, we’ve done our jobs,” Garcia said.

Hott’s class, this year, is working on a project that calls for students to come up with solutions for climate change, like building wind turbines and planting trees. Some students even propose lifestyle changes to curb human impacts, such as eliminating plastic straws or more efficiently disposing of food waste.

Tina Hott, a biology teacher at Animas High School, said she doesn’t want her students to become despondent over climate change. Instead, a class project this year focuses on coming up with ideas to help solve the issue of a warming planet.

“There’s a lot of doom and gloom, and I don’t want them to feel hopeless or that all is lost,” Hott said. “I want to empower them.”

‘It’s not a belief, it’s science’

National education policy specialists said Durango’s way of teaching climate change, in letting the students decide, is common throughout the country, but leaving room for doubt about the reasons behind a warming trend could be considered irresponsible.

“We don’t do that with other areas of science,” said Ann Reid, director of the National Center for Science Education. “I don’t just lay out the information about the periodic table and let students come to their own conclusion.”

Reid cautioned that influential groups that deny climate change, for a variety of reasons, consistently put out misleading information. Provided accurate data, however, she said students shouldn’t come to any other conclusion than the planet is warming.

“The best science teaching does present students with the data and have them figure out what’s going on,” she said. “That’s powerful for the students to figure out for themselves.”

Bill Bigelow, curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools and co-director of the Zinn Education Project, said it’s usually not effective for teachers to stand at the front of the classroom and preach to students. But, he also took issue with leaving room for doubt.

“It’s not a belief, it’s science,” he said. “And to be neutral on whether or not human activity is altering the climate is irresponsible.”

What does the next generation say?

According to a handful of students interviewed for this story, Durango schools’ approach to climate change is effective.

Caleb McGrath, a senior at Durango High School, said teachers do a great job of presenting the facts and letting students sift through them. He, and most of his friends, have come to the same conclusion.

“That’s one of the biggest things for me: I always felt like I was allowed to form my own opinion,” he said. “And I definitely believe climate change is real, and we have to do something about it.”

Riverview Elementary School fourth grade students are led by Amanda Kuenzi, with Mountain Studies Institute, as she teaches about native and invasive plants in October as they walk down the Hermosa Creek Trail through the 416 Fire burn area.

Rosie Gurnee, a junior at Animas High School, echoed much of the same.

“Teachers are very open to talk about whatever students are concerned about, and we’re definitely concerned about climate change,” she said. “I don’t hear a whole lot of students not believing in climate change or saying we shouldn’t do anything about it.”

While the data can present somewhat of a bleak future, students thrive on focusing on solutions and ways to change their lifestyles in the hopes of curbing the impacts of climate change before it’s too late.

“I read a quote the other day that said our generation, the one in school now, will be the first to feel the effects of climate change and the last to do anything to help that problem,” McGrath said. “I think that was a really big thing for me I didn’t quite realize.”


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