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Climate literacy is about understanding there are varying points of view, whether supported by facts, emotion, or both.

How to elevate climate literacy for future scientists

Climate literacy is about understanding there are varying points of view, whether supported by facts, emotion, or both

Key points:

  • A majority of teenagers want to learn about climate change in school
  • New Jersey became the first state to implement comprehensive climate instruction across all grades and subjects

The climate crisis is undermining decades of progress in global health and poverty reduction. We look to our next generation of planetary heroes for solutions, but are we educating them in climate literacy?

Climate-literate people understand the principles of Earth’s evolving climate system, the complex interconnections, the influence of humans, and scientific approaches to mitigation. They make informed and responsible decisions on actions that may affect climate, and communicate about climate change in a meaningful way.

Because of technology, younger generations understand our small planet is an interconnected place and that we can all help in reducing climate-related threats facing humanity: extreme weather; food system disruptions; water-borne and zoonotic diseases; mental health risks, etc. 

Some of our first impressions of how we should “show up” in society and what we should care about as citizens are created in classrooms. It doesn’t have to be political: The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 78 percent of American voters support children learning in schools about its causes, consequences, and potential solutions.

Elevating the conversation

Climate literacy is about understanding there are varying points of view, whether supported by facts, emotion, or both. Elevating the conversation around climate change can include:

  • Making collective efforts in crafting action plans towards inclusive, comprehensible, and accessible education.
  • Sharing research grounded in data, e.g., the Alliance for Science concluded that 99.9% of scientific studies published 2012-2020 agreed climate change is mainly human-caused.
  • Identifying personal actions to reduce environmental footprint.
  • Using social media to engage large groups in conversations.

Nearly 80 percent of teenagers in a nationwide survey conducted last fall believe climate change is real, human-caused, and want more classroom instruction on personal actions to mitigate its effects.

It’s not enough to learn about climate change in isolation as a “hard science.”  We must encourage climate literacy as part of subjects already in the curriculum instead of burdening teachers with a new area to cover. Last fall, New Jersey became the first state implementing comprehensive climate instruction across all grades and subjects, although a survey reported many teachers feeling uncertain about classroom content.

Teachers might be more inclined to include climate change in lessons if they’re confident in their own understanding of the subject and have resources they can trust. There’s a plethora of not-for-profit groups like UNESCO/OCE TeachersCOP offering resources to implement quality climate change education and build professional competence and confidence: Climate Central, Climate Reality Project, ClimeTime, Coalition for Climate Change Education Policy, Project Drawdown, and SubjecttoClimate.

Making it real

Modern interactive education technologies have moved from the abstraction of passive learning with textbooks just a generation ago. Gen Z and Gen Alpha are engaging with climate change issues in a gamified and personal way. Why would coral bleaching matter to a student who doesn’t understand how coral reefs protect coastlines and support marine life? They’ll make more meaningful connections with climate impacts when they spend time in grade school studying plants and animals. 

Perceptions of climate change risks are often reliant upon personal experiences and observations. 

“Citizen scientists” can participate in experiential educational activities for learners of all ages to collect and interpret data from their own experiments, from data collected by satellites, and from other observation systems. In that way, students aren’t being asked to choose between believing their parents versus their teachers or their government, but rather to experience climate change for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

There’s now a plethora of free smartphone apps developed by not-for-profit associations to support citizen science and experiential learning activities. For example, the iNaturalist app uses artificial intelligence to record and identify the sounds and images of plants, animals, and fungi, and then shares it with an online community. Budburst and Nature’s Notebook track the life cycles of plants and animals, monitoring the climate-related changes in tree flowering, fruit production, and bird migration.

These apps enable a student to experience data showing how animal migration patterns have shifted in response to temperature changes. They can see why the Baltimore Oriole is disappearing from Baltimore due to habitat loss. The apps provide a way to use technology that is additive, engaging kids but without distracting them from being in nature.  In addition:

  • Have students apply their “book smarts” in real-world, project-based learning scenarios, encouraging teamwork and problem-solving. 
  • Train educators on strategies for crafting and applying intriguing knowledge tidbits through climate storytelling, gamification, personal examples, local initiatives, and visualizations based on data, data analytics, and science. 
  • Leverage augmented and virtual reality tools for teaching climate systems literacy.

One of the beauties of technology is that it can enhance reality so that students can experience climate systems in a whole different way. Immersive laboratory simulations  bring home the reality of climate change when students actively design projects aimed at curbing or adapting to climate change, manipulating the connections among, say, the wolves, elk, beavers, trout, and aspen trees in Yellowstone. Through experiential simulations, they see how air pollution speeds ice melt, how deforestation increases animal migration, how diseases spread from animals to humans, and how rising sea levels affect coastal cities.

And it matters: Researchers at San José State University found that if just 16% of high school students received education on individual lifetime carbon emissions, it could result in a 19 gigaton reduction of carbon dioxide by 2050.

Tick … tock

Derailing the trajectory of the climate crisis requires collaboration and compromise, and to be intentional about how we spend money and use our voices to support the leaders and companies shaping the world.

Developing climate literacy comes down to inspiring our youth by tapping into their natural curiosity and passion for fairness and equity. The EdWeek Research Center study also revealed that climate anxiety is exacerbating the mental health crisis affecting nearly half of our youth. We can alleviate their fear if we teach our children well and guide them becoming the influencers for the environment our planet so desperately needs.

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