Science

Rural Students Are More Skeptical of Climate Change. What Should Teachers Do?

By Arianna Prothero — April 06, 2023 2 min read
Digitally generated image of a forked road. It leads in two directions. One towards a bleak future where climate change has destroyed the enviroment. The other way shows a way towards prosperity with renewable energy and a sustainable climate. In the middle of the road stands a 3D-model person.
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Nearly 8 in 10 U.S. teenagers agree with the scientific consensus that climate change is real and mainly caused by human activity. But how firmly they agree with that statement varies a lot based on where they live.

Students in rural areas are much more skeptical and uncertain about global warming being driven by human activity than their peers in small towns and suburban and urban areas, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey. Even so, a healthy share of rural students—64 percent—still agree that it’s happening and caused mostly by humans.

That’s compared with 83 percent of teens living in cities and urban areas, 79 percent from suburban communities, and 75 percent of those living in small towns.

Nineteen percent of teenagers living in rural areas or in the country said that climate change is real but not caused by human activity, and 12 percent indicated that they were not sure what they believe. Just 4 percent said that Earth’s climate is not changing.

This doesn’t surprise David E. Long, an associate professor of STEM education at Morehead State University in Kentucky. He researches how evolution and climate change are taught in U.S. schools, and he said there can be a particular push and pull between what kids hear from their parents and what they see in the media.

“They’re going to have influences from the surrounding adults and friends and people around them in their communities, and in rural areas, just by U.S. demographics, that’s going to lean a little more conservative than say cities,” Long said. “I think it’s also the case, as you would expect, that the younger generation just has had more messaging about climate change and about it being a crisis.”

The political attitudes of people living in rural America also aren’t a monolith, Long pointed out. “There are plenty of liberal-minded people here; it’s just not in the proportions you have in cities.”

Given that a significant share of rural students are skeptical or unsure of climate change (and the adults in their lives potentially more so), what does that mean for educators teaching about climate change in rural schools?

Long recommends trying a problem-based learning approach, which helps students connect the science behind this big global phenomenon to their local communities. For example, students can work on a project looking into how changing precipitation patterns from climate change are affecting local crops and propose solutions with the help of community members and local businesses.

This approach also helps motivate and engage students, because it makes them feel empowered to find solutions to the problem, said Long.

“Problem-based learning gets kids who are starting to tune out much more involved,” he said.

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