NSF Promotes Climate-Change Education With New Grants

By Erik W. Robelen — August 17, 2012 4 min read
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Efforts to advance climate-change education in schools and communities are getting a boost from a set of six grants awarded this week by the National Science Foundation, totaling more than $33 million over five years. The grants will support a number of efforts, including a joint project in Maryland and Delaware to help schools deliver effective and regionally relevant instruction in grades 8-12, and pay for work led by the New England Aquarium to enhance climate-change education in zoos, aquariums, and other settings.

“Ours is an attempt to get appropriate content related to climate change into the curricula of schools on a statewide level,” said Don Boesch, the president of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, and the project director for a $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 to bring together existing, high-quality resources on the topic, the effort will also involve the development of new materials that emphasize the local context and relevance of climate change, Boesch said. And it will feature a strong emphasis on professional development for teachers, he added. (Here’s a press release on the Maryland-Delaware grant.)

The multi-year NSF grants come as understanding climate change—including the role of human activity in contributing to it—is identified in a draft set of common state science standards as an important dimension of science all students should learn. Among the 26 states playing a lead role in that effort are both Maryland and Delaware. It also comes, of course, as climate change continues to spark heated debate in the political sphere.

Boesch said climate change typically does not get much time and thoughtful attention in public schools. He offers up several reasons: an already-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 notes, “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.”

Another grant recipient is the New England Aquarium, which is getting $5.5 million over five years for work it will do in partnership with a number of organizations to help educators, and even youth interpreters, who work at aquariums, zoos, science centers, and other such institutions.

“Where we’re starting from ... is that 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 and controversy,” said Billy Spitzer, the vice president of programs, exhibits, and planning at the New England Aquarium. “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.”

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

This is consistent with how the issue is treated in a draft of common science standards issued this spring. The document, in language taken from a framework for the standards developed by an expert panel of the 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’).”

[Here is how the issue was summed up by a National Academies report in 2011, the culmination of a five-report series from a panel of experts: “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.”]

“There is a tremendous amount of consensus in the scientific community,” Spitzer said. “We start with where the science is, and the science is increasingly clear.”

He added that aquariums, zoos, and other such setting are in a good position to help advance public understanding of climate change.

Spitzer added: “We’re not so caught up in a lot of the politics: We really are science-based, we really do reach a lot of people through visitors, but also programs that we run, programs for kids, programs for teachers.”

Partners in the effort include Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, among others.

The four other NSF grants include:

$5.7 million to Columbia University for a project to help the public understand climate issues in the polar regions, with a focus on “novel educational approaches,” including gaming and game-like activities;

$5.9 million to the Franklin Institute to 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";

$4.9 million to the University of San Diego to develop a new model for educating both the general public and key decisionmakers; and

$5.9 million to Pacific Resources for Education and Learning to enhance climate-change education in the Pacific Island region, w+ith involvement of school systems, universities, and others.

CORRECTION: The original version of this post included incorrect dollar figures over five years for certain grants.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.