School Climate & Safety

NSF Awards Grants for Climate-Change Education

August 28, 2012 4 min read
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Efforts to advance climate-change education in schools and communities are getting a boost from a new set of six grants awarded by the National Science Foundation, totaling more than $33 million over five years.

The federal aid will support a number of initiatives, including a joint project in Delaware and Maryland to help schools deliver effective and regionally relevant instruction in grades 8-12, and work led by the New England Aquarium to enhance opportunities for climate-change education in zoos, aquariums, and other out-of-school settings.

“Ours is an attempt to get appropriate content related to climate change into the curricula of schools on a statewide level,” said Donald F. Boesch, the president of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science and the project director for the five-year, $5.6 million grant. “People have to understand what is going on and sort through all the things they hear ... and the choices we have to face.”

In addition to helping bring together existing high-quality resources on the topic, the project will develop materials that emphasize the local context of climate change, Mr. Boesch said. And it will feature a lot of professional development for teachers, he added.

Awards Target Schools, Communities

The National Science Foundation announced six grants focused on climate-change education.

University System of Maryland:
Deliver effective and regionally relevant instruction on climate change with an emphasis on grades 8-12 in Maryland and Delaware schools. $5.6 million

Pacific Resources for Education and Learning, in Honolulu:
Enhance climate-change education in the Pacific Island region at the K-14 level, with a focus on scientific understanding, local impacts, and indigenous cultural issues. $5.9 million

New England Aquarium, in Boston:
Improve and expand climate-change education in aquariums, zoos, and other settings, with a focus on providing professional development for interpretive staff. $5.5 million

Columbia University:
Help the public understand climate issues in the polar regions through the exploration and development of “novel educational approaches,” including gaming and game-like activities. $5.7 million

University of San Diego:
Develop a new model for educating both the general public and key decisionmakers in the San Diego region, with the goal of replicating it elsewhere. $4.9 million

Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia:
Engage urban residents in community-based learning about climate change and the prospects for enhancing urban quality of life through “informed responses to a changing Earth.” $5.9 million

SOURCE: National Science Foundation

The project also aims to help venues such as museums, aquariums, and nature centers with climate-change education.

The NSF grants, announced this month, come as understanding climate change—including the role of human activity in contributing to it—is identified in a draft set of common science standards as an important dimension of science all students should learn. Among the 26 states playing a lead role in that effort are Delaware and Maryland.

The grants announced this month also come as climate change continues to spark debate in the political sphere.

‘Evidence-Based’

Jill L. Karsten, an NSF program director, said the initiative aims to bring together several varieties of expertise in each project: climate scientists, learning scientists, and education practitioners.

“By bringing these three very different types of experiences, that’s where some of the innovation will occur in climate-change education,” she said. “We aren’t telling people what to think. We’re trying to give them the scientific literacy to understand what the scientific community is demonstrating through their observations and to know enough to make ... decisions for themselves.”

The NSF materials say that a major goal is to prepare citizens to “understand global climate change and its implications in ways that can lead to informed, evidence-based responses and solutions.”

But Neil P. McCluskey, an education analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank, said he sees reasons to worry about the initiative.

“One is the very real concern that these programs will be used to teach kind of the extreme ‘doom and gloom’ side of climate change, rather than just talk about the science, how it works,” he said.

Teachers Wary of Topic

Mr. Boesch of the University of Maryland said climate change typically gets little time and thoughtful attention in public schools. He offers several reasons: a crowded curriculum; lack of awareness and access to good instructional resources by educators; and, finally, apprehension among many teachers.

“Teachers aren’t comfortable addressing the subject because they don’t understand it at all,” he said. “It is an inherently complicated set of issues that transcend a single field of science.”

In addition, he said, “it’s viewed in our society today as controversial and sensitive, so if I raise this issue, I’m going to upset someone and have a problem.”

The New England Aquarium is playing a lead role in a $5.5 million grant over five years for work in partnership with others to help educators, and even youth interpreters, who work at aquariums, zoos, science centers, and other settings.

“We think the public dialogue around climate change and other environmental issues needs to be expanded and broadened, not be so much around contention and divisiveness,” said William Spitzer, a vice president at the aquarium, in Boston. “There is a real need to enable people to grapple with what are the issues in terms of science, in terms of policy, how it relates to people’s everyday lives and things they care about.”

Mr. Spitzer, like Mr. Boesch, said a core underpinning of the work is that climate change is real, and that human activity is a key contributor.

That is consistent with how the issue is treated in a draft of common science standards issued this past spring. The document, in language taken from a framework for the standards developed by an expert panel of the congressionally chartered National Research Council, says: “Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (‘global warming’).”

A separate 2011 report from the NRC, the culmination of a five-report series, sums up the issue this way: “Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities, and poses significant risks for a range of human and natural systems.”

“We start with where the science is, and the science is increasingly clear,” said Mr. Spitzer.

He argues that aquariums, zoos, and other such settings are well-positioned to advance public understanding of the issue through their solid reputations and wide reach.

A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2012 edition of Education Week as NSF Awards Grants for Climate-Change Education

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