Teacher Preparation Q&A

A New Program Will Train Teachers to Teach Climate Change, Without the ‘Doom and Gloom’

By Madeline Will — December 29, 2022 8 min read
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Climate change is expected to affect every facet of our lives, and students are hungry to learn more about it. Many experts say the topic goes beyond science class and should be woven through subjects and grade levels.

Yet more than three-quarters of teachers have never received any professional training or education on climate change or how to teach it, according to a nationally representative survey of teachers, conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in December.

San Francisco State University is hoping to change that. The university announced this fall that it is creating a Climate Justice Education Certificate for pre-K-12 teaching—part of a broader initiative to tackle the climate crisis in an equity-minded way.

The four-couse program will train current and future teachers to understand climate science and teach climate justice issues relevant to the communities they work with. The first full cohort of teachers is expected to start in summer 2024.

The goal of the program—which will combine both online learning with some in-person experiences—is to train at least 60 teachers within the next five years. The university will offer 10 scholarships each year and hopes to secure additional funding to offer more support.

Ideally, the program’s architects say, the teachers who earn the certificate will go back to their schools and share their newfound experience and expertise with their colleagues.

“That’s the kind of thing we’re going to ask our participants to do at the end of the certificate program—think systemically,” said Stephanie Sisk-Hilton, a professor of elementary education. “How are you going to bring this to your school so that all kids have access to it, instead of just keeping it in your own classroom?”

The program will teach educators to talk about climate change in a way that empowers students, rather than focus on “disaster pedagogy,” she added. Survey findings from the EdWeek Research Center have revealed that more than a third of teenagers feel anxious and afraid when they think about climate change and its effects.

Education Week spoke to three San Francisco State professors—Sisk-Hilton; Charli Sakari, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy; and Autumn Thoyre, an assistant professor of environmental studies—about the new program and some of the best practices for teaching about climate change.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the purpose of the certificate, and how does it meet a need in teacher preparation?

Sisk-Hilton: We’re one of the main preparers of teachers for our region, and we know that climate change education is something that’s both really important to educators and is currently not really a core part of most teacher education programs.

There’s been some recent survey data that shows that nationwide, a large majority of teachers feel it’s important to be teaching climate change. Despite what sometimes we hear in the media, a large majority of parents think that climate change should be—and actually, they think it is being—taught in schools.

One of the issues is that—especially for folks who aren’t science teachers, but even for those who are—teachers are worried about how to bring climate change and issues of climate justice into their classrooms because they haven’t been trained in it. In many cases, they may be nervous about not understanding the science. They know it’s a justice issue, but they’re not completely clear on what that is. And at the same time, we are literally living through this. Our children in our schools are living through climate change and climate justice issues every day.

We wanted to create a program that practicing teachers can engage with that’s going to make sure they’re solid in the science of climate change, that introduces them to different perspectives and ideas around climate change as a justice issue, and that specifically talks about how to engage in developmentally appropriate and culturally responsive teaching around issues of climate change and climate justice.

What does that teaching look like? What are the best practices?

Sisk-Hilton: We know that disaster pedagogy is not helpful. It makes our brains shut down. It makes us want to run away from a problem. And it’s a lot of the reason why teachers are nervous about introducing climate change into the curriculum.

We really want to approach this from a position of empowering teachers and empowering students to engage in what’s often referred to as a pedagogy of hope—thinking about what’s possible, how we can move the narrative forward so that we’re creating a generation of future adults who feel able to take this on.

See also

Jia Sharma-Chaube, 15, left, and Croix Hill, 16, students at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans pose for a portrait at City Park in New Orleans, La., on Nov. 29, 2022.
Jia Sharma-Chaube, 15, left, and Croix Hill, 16, both students at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, are among the substantial number of young who feel anxious about climate change.

Sakari: As Stephanie said, this gloom-and-doom idea really doesn’t work. It doesn’t help. There are some practical facts that are necessary to teach—maybe like what the greenhouse effect is and what global warming is.

But we’ve been working to make [physics and astronomy] part of our curriculum for a variety of reasons, one being that astronomy is often a gateway science for people. People love astronomy without feeling like it’s an overwhelming science. So we really focused on using astronomy as a lens to think about Earth and climate change. That could be comparisons with Venus and Mars, two planets with very different greenhouse effects than Earth. It can be things like connections to the sun and the solar cycle, and misconceptions about how that relates to climate change. It can be ... clearing up the misconception that we can travel to another planet if things get too bad.

We’re developing a new class about the physics and astronomy of climate change solutions. Not just to help think about the existing possibilities, but also to get students excited about working in the future, to innovate on new ideas.

Sisk-Hilton: And likewise with the justice issue, really focusing on solutions and ways that people are working now to really inspire innovation and creativity and this feeling that you can do things in your community. So for instance, there’s work being done at our Estuary & Ocean Science Center around building artificial ocean reefs as a way to help with mitigating the impacts of sea level rise, but also grow back Bay Area ecosystems. There’s ways that kids can actually see that in action here in the Bay Area. ... It’s a way to introduce these real justice issues in terms of, who’s most impacted by sea level rise? What’s being done? How are people engaging this with their communities?

The certificate is designed for preschool to high school teachers. Why is that?

Sisk-Hilton: If we want to have an impact, we need to be thinking about the whole grade span. Our college of education has other programs that bring together teachers from a variety of grade levels, and it tends to be a really powerful experience. You may have high school science teachers who are coming in with a lot of content knowledge, and they bring that to the table. And then you may have early childhood teachers who are bringing this really strong developmental perspective. Getting them to work in teams really helps them think about the whole grade span.

See also

Black teen, female student fixing a poster about environmental issues on a wall. The poster reads -  There is no planet B
E+/Getty

It helps us get beyond just a single classroom at a single point in time, to thinking about a developmental trajectory. Right now, we don’t really have that. The Next Generation Science Standards do have a lot of climate science worked into them, but it is less apparent at the elementary grade levels.

It’s a tough balance to teach about climate change without scaring students. Does incorporating the justice piece into lessons help?

Sisk-Hilton: When kids have a project where they can see the impact on their community or their families, that’s really powerful. Sometimes those projects are real in-the-moment: helping with a reforestation project or doing a beach cleanup as part of learning about the impact of waste on the ocean. … But there’s also real power in imagining and designing for change in a community, even if it’s things that kids can’t bring to life yet.

An example that I like to use from my own 5th graders: We had done a unit on the carbon cycle. Then we watched videos and learned different stories of change-makers, people who were doing things to help bring the carbon cycle into better balance. Then their final project for that was to design something that they thought would help bring the carbon cycle into balance.

It took a little while to get this going, but eventually they came up with these great ideas. There was this group that designed a photosynthetic car that would run by photosynthesizing.

My favorite comment from students—they were like, “We don’t have all the details worked out just yet.” Of course they didn’t! They were 5th graders. But they were imagining, and it mattered to them because they were thinking about how this would help their community. Their school was right by the freeway. They could see and feel the impact of fossil fuel burning. Being able to imagine community impacting solutions I think really helps with buy-in and with not staying in this disaster pedagogy place.

Sakari: In high school, you have kids who are really interested in cars, or maybe they have family who lives far away and they know they have to fly to see them. The guilt of, “Oh, you shouldn’t have that interest. You shouldn’t see your family”—that doesn’t work. I think these ideas of, “well, how could you have that interest? How could you travel and see your family and make the carbon cycle work [and] not contribute to climate change?” Those sorts of ideas are also useful to inspire them and to imagine.

Thoyre: It’s cool to hear about this and to imagine these students then going on to college, because when we talked to environmental studies students, so many of them became environmental studies majors because of experiences they had in high school with some amazing teacher who really cared about climate change.

Studies are showing that that kind of mentorship from teachers and that kind of formal education is really important in the development of students identifying as environmentalists, whether they major in it or not. It has all these ripple effects—we’re training teachers to become leaders in their school who will then become leaders in their lives and in their communities.

Coverage of how climate change is affecting students’ learning and well-being is supported in part by a grant from the Education Writers’ Association Reporting Fellowship program, at www.ewa.org/fellowship. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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