TEACHERS’ PEST: Handling global warming in the classroom heats up

“There is an overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming,” Fairview High School teacher Paul Strode said. “It is mind blowing how much science denial and pseudoscience is out there. I don’t get it.”

AURORA | Controversy about climate change isn’t limited to Congress, it’s heating up classrooms and school boards across the country, where educators struggle over how to broach the subject — and when.

For University of Colorado Colorado Springs sociology professor Eileen Skahill, senior year in college is too late.

Skahill, who lectures at the university said Colorado, like much of the country, is inconsistent about how, what and when to teach public school students about our warming planet and humans’ role in that change.

“I have college seniors who come in learning about climate change for the first time,” Skahill said.

Those may be the most extreme cases in a state that has vague guidelines about teaching climate change in public schools, but teachers, scientists and government officials agree the controversial topic is handled disparately across the state.

Besides controversy over denial and cause, even the vocabulary is politically charged and vexing.

Most educators make a distinction between “global warming” and “climate change,” the first referring to the Earth heating from greenhouse gases because of human activity. Climate change, for many educators, refers to a natural cycle of temperature variation affecting Earth’s climates.

The real controversy heats up, however, because state officials have created standards that seek to teach the accepted science of the issue, but also help students understand the controversy itself and come to their own conclusions.

There are many areas where teachers have the opportunity to intertwine the natural planetary cycle of global warming and rapid climate change as man-made, but the standards do not specify that it must be taught, according to the standards of the Colorado Department of Education Nature of Science criteria for high school Earth Systems Science.

High school teaching standards, which closely address the issue of political controversy, do not set out exact expectations. In the eighth grade, state standards require students to think critically and answer the question: What evidence supports and/or contradicts human influence on climate change?

Critics say the standards fall short in making sure students understand that the science behind the case for human-caused climate change and global warming is overwhelming and well-accepted around the world. It’s the political realm where the issue becomes controversial.

“The Colorado science standards are pretty wishy-washy,” said Glenn Branch, deputy director of National Center for Science Education, Inc.

He cited a line from a page in the overall Colorado science standards, adopted in 2009. “Human actions such as burning fossil fuels might impact Earth’s climate.” He was most concerned with the word “might” because science says it is definitively what’s happening.

Joanna Bruno, the science content specialist for the Colorado Department of Education, said that the standards are meant to be nonspecific. They are a guideline and each district can choose their local standards.

“That is why we left it broad, is so that it can be interpreted,” she said.

Bruno compared students in the eastern plains having different opinions on wind turbines than students in the mountainous areas. She said that the turbines have negative repercussions for some, and students should be taught the other side of renewable energy and nonrenewable energy, which is what the standards state.

But allowing schools to give serious academic treatment to climate change using what critics say is pseudoscience is a real problem for students, experts say.

Colorado Academic Standards adopted in 2009 were not rated high, receiving a D from the Fordham Foundation State of State Science Standards in 2012. Colorado received a three of ten overall, with content and rigor receiving a two of seven and clarity and specificity receiving a one of three.

The standards are being rewritten this year and will be sent to the Colorado State Board of Education in October.

One difference between Colorado and states like New York, is that the state of New York decides the curriculum but Colorado curriculum is decided locally.

Some teachers, mostly in outstate Colorado, say that’s not a bad thing.

Colorado State Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, said he taught in public schools for 40 years before he went into politics. He said that teachers can have biases they can preach to students, who are usually a captive audience. He said that education should always be critical and it should always share all sides.

“There is a difference between teaching bias and teaching the facts,” he said. “If they teach from their beliefs, they are not teaching the entire picture. There is a moral obligation to teach both sides, otherwise it is indoctrination not education.”

Critics of teachers and lawmakers like Wilson say that’s where the controversy ends. There actually aren’t two scientific sides to the global warming issue, just one, and the politics that affect it.

In Aurora, that means the science of global warming and climate change prevail.

Aurora Public Schools has its own local curriculum, which uses a McDougal book series that has sections for both global warming and climate change. According to Patti Moon, Chief Communications Officer for Aurora Public Schools, all curriculum must be approved by the APS Board of Education. Any additional content outside of the required textbooks would also need to be approved by the school board.

Students are not taught that there is an alternative science discounting human-caused global warming, Moon said.

“We are similar to the other metro districts in making the distinction between the political issue and not one of science,” Moon said.

Director of communications at Cherry Creek School District, Abbe Smith, said curricula are decided by the individual school and signed off by the principal and assistant principal. The curriculum and textbooks are not decided by individual teachers.

“That is a process that involves a team of teachers and the department head working together to select instructional materials that best support teaching of science curriculum that is aligned to the Colorado Academic Standards,” she said.

Both school districts said that science and other teachers discuss the controversy about climate change, but that the controversy is a political one and not scientific one.

Cherry Creek teachers also confronts the controversy but leaves room for students to discuss their opinion, officials said.

“Controversy around climate change does not necessary come up as a topic when teaching the science of climate change,” Smith said. “Our teachers focus on the science and on engaging students using evidence and knowledge to understand climate trends. However, if the controversy does come up, teachers would engage the students in a conversation about different perspectives on climate change.” 

Teacher Paul Strode is frustrated by the loose and variable standards. An Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate biology teacher at Fairview High School in Boulder, Strode recently published a study on bird migration and global warming as his dissertation. Strode follows the state and Boulder county standards for science education, and he also follows Next Generation standards, exceeding Colorado state standards.

Strode said that his colleague, who teaches advanced physical science classes at Fairview, had difficulty finding valid information on global warming online, when looking for additional content for his classes.

“There is an overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming,” Strode said. “It is mind blowing how much science denial and pseudoscience is out there. I don’t get it.”

With unclear outside resources to choose from, it puts pressure on the teachers to choose between something that sounds objective and fair, even though it’s scientifically inaccurate. Some teachers may not understand the content well enough to teach it properly.

For Skahill, this became an issue she noticed with students at the end of their college career, still unclear about a topic that is scientifically settled and vitally important.

She said she is pressured by some students and even parents to entertain non-science positions on the issue.  

Last year, Skahill and two other teachers had a student get angry when they refused to let him debate the “other side” of global warming.

The student and many others reflect what critics call pseudo-science, promoted by organizations such as The Heartland Institute. Heartland is a Chicago-area advocacy group that challenges the assertion that there is consensus about a human-caused climate crisis. The group has sent a textbook titled, “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” to teachers across the nation, according to an Associated Press story.

Academics and scientists discount the tactic as political machinations and not science, but still, the controversy continues.

“It is in general inappropriate in science education to present topics that are not scientifically controversial as though they were scientifically controversial,” Branch said. “We don’t tell students that scientists are divided about the shape of the earth, because they’re not. In the same way, we shouldn’t tell students that scientists are divided about the fact that the climate is changing, and faster than it has in millions of years, on account of human activity, because they’re not.”