Climate Change Education: A Student’s Perspective
by Eliot Brody
At my recent high school graduation, I found myself reflecting on the 12 years I spent in Oregon’s largest school district, Portland Public Schools. While I sat through the speeches in my oversized, wrinkly gown, I thought about all that I had learned in those 12 years. And all that I hadn’t.
As I sifted through the many topics that had been covered in my schooling, my thoughts lingered on the conspicuous absence of climate change education—I had known nothing about the greenhouse effect until a guest speaker came into my science class in eighth grade. As a few members of Franklin High School’s graduating class crossed the stage wearing their beaded “wood-cookie” necklaces, my mind conjured vivid images of the place they got those keepsakes; a week in sixth grade that we all spent learning environmental science in the woods near Mt. Hood. Again, though, my nostalgia turned negative as I recalled that we were the last group of students to have the full six-day Outdoor School experience; the following year, Multnomah Education Service District shortened the program to three days. My reflections left me with the conviction that the school system as I knew it could not be counted on to teach climate science.
Reversing the consequences of climate change grows increasingly difficult each day. With this is in mind, we must find ways to teach our youngest students about climate change as early as possible, because they will be the ones most affected by it.
Big Ideas in a Shrunken School
Two months before graduation officially concluded my Portland Public Schools journey, I paid a special visit to the place where it all began, Glencoe Elementary School. I walked through what felt like shrunken hallways in the familiar building, dodging elementary schoolers as they hurried back to class from lunch. Only seven years before, I had been in their position, but I was there now to be their guest teacher. I was accompanied by a classmate and friend, Mabel Miller, and together we had prepared an hour-long presentation on climate change for the school’s fourth graders.
Glencoe has four fourth grade classes, each with around 30 students. Miller and I planned to teach lessons in two of the classes that day, before presenting to the other two classes the following day. As we prepared our Google Slides presentation in our first class, there was an audible hubbub among the fourth graders about the two unfamiliar teenagers standing awkwardly at the front of their classroom. One brave student even called out to us, “Who are you?” Before we could say anything, Ms. Clark, the teacher, hushed her class and reminded them who we were by pointing to the day’s schedule on a chalkboard. Scrawled in white chalk was, “Franklin High School visitors,” next to, “12:00 p.m.”
I glanced out at the large group of antsy nine and ten year-olds, then over at Miller. Her face displayed my own worries: how will we keep the attention of these kids? I silently thanked her for preparing an interactive, climate change-themed activity to do with the students when they got restless. Ms. Clark turned to us with a smile and informed us that we could start whenever we were ready. I leaned over to turn on the projector, and we introduced ourselves and began.
First, we gauged the fourth graders’ prior knowledge on the subject. We asked what the phrase “climate change” made the students think about and how it made them feel. We got a variety of responses, from “it makes me sad” to detailed accounts of the polar ice caps melting. Then, we showed slides explaining:
- The distinction between “climate” and “weather,” and how climate change is different from seasonal fluctuations in temperature and weather.
- The atmosphere, how it can vary in size, and what that means for average temperatures on the Earth. We displayed a series of diagrams showing atmospheres of varying sizes, and how much heat could escape in each scenario. We also used plenty of analogies:
- “It’s like your blanket at night. You don’t want one that’s too heavy, or else you’ll be too hot.”
- “It’s like sitting in a hot car in the summer. The windows let the warmth from the sunlight in, and then that heat gets trapped in the car.”
- Fossil fuels and how humans use them.
- Greenhouse gases and how they cause the greenhouse effect. We specifically highlighted and explained carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor.
- The many effects of climate change. We made the tougher ideas as relatable for the students as possible, including talking about what coral bleaching means for the livelihood of the aquatic characters in the popular Disney movies Finding Nemo and Finding Dory.
- Small and big things that the students could do to fight climate change.
As soon as we got into the material, it was apparent that the kids were interested—far more interested than we had anticipated. We had expected our presentation to take the first 40 minutes, leaving 20 minutes for the activity, but the students’ many questions and comments stretched our slideshow to take up the whole hour. Instead of being bored or disinterested, the students wanted to learn more about each detail and share their own stories and experiences. We received a chorus of genuine-sounding “thank you’s” from the students as we left.
In the next class, our presentation ran even more smoothly. I was consistently surprised by how much the students wanted to participate and ask questions, and again we finished the presentation without having to use the activity to fill time or focus the students. At the end, a number of students came up to personally thank us, and one girl gave me a bookmark emblazoned with the words, “save the earth.”
The classes we presented to the following day were just as welcoming and curious. The experience we had gained from the previous day gave us more confidence as we taught. By the end of the second day, we had given a crash course on climate change’s underlying science and effects to well over 100 students. More importantly, we had showed what they could individually do to help. It had only taken four hours of our time, and the teachers had happily extended their rooms, students, and class time to our cause. The four teachers, all of whom had been around when Miller and I attended Glencoe, even gave us a thank-you card.
Education, the Best Form of Activism
So, how did Miller and I end up back in our elementary school two months before graduation?
At Franklin, we had both taken a class called Environmental Justice and Sustainability. The format of the elective was to have each student work on year-long projects related to sustainability. The class was only two years old, having been started in the 2015-16 school year, but it had already made big strides and inspired the adoption of a similar class by the same name at another PPS school, Lincoln High School. Miller, as president of Franklin’s Earth Club, had used the class to increase the club’s size and presence in the school community (this year, over 60 students were in the club). Students had also created and run a bottles-and-cans recycling system and started a vegetable garden, among other endeavors. The class had even been able to improve Franklin’s resource conservation strategies enough for the school to earn recognition as a Merit-Level Oregon Green School.
My project was to coordinate outreach from our “green team” to other nearby communities, including the rest of the PPS high schools. Earlier in the year, I had focused on high school outreach by helping form a coalition of students called High School Environmental Leadership Project (HELP). HELP brings together high school students every other week to work on environmental activism and make each PPS high school more sustainable. One long-term HELP goal is to write a city ordinance that would bind Portland lawmakers to reducing emissions. The project is called YouCAN (Youth Climate Action Now) and is based on a model that has been used in four other Oregon cities: Eugene, Bend, Corvallis, and Ashland. One tactic that was used in Eugene was to have students testify in front of the city council in favor of adopting the ordinance. YouCAN organizers in Eugene described the importance of having youth of all ages testify, so HELP decided that elementary school outreach would be an important step in furthering this goal. At the end of our elementary school presentation, we told students that one of the big ways they could contribute to the cause is by attending a HELP summer camp or even testifying in front of city council at some point. Many students seemed interested in this, and we told the teachers that we would keep them posted as the project developed. HELP’s climate justice action camp will be held on August 24th and 25th this summer for rising third graders, fourth graders, and fifth graders.
Miller and I had a number of reasons for teaching at Glencoe. It furthered our work with HELP and allowed us to reach out as Franklin green team members to elementary school students in the Franklin neighborhood. Most importantly, though, it allowed us to teach about climate change to the generation that will be most affected by it. It is extremely important that students are taught at a young age to trust the scientists on this issue and not the corporate propaganda.
Get High Schoolers Teaching Climate Science
After the successful lessons at Glencoe, I wanted to continue to teach elementary schoolers about climate change. I emailed a 4th grade teacher at Atkinson Elementary, another school in the Franklin neighborhood. The teacher, Amy Nunn, seemed enthusiastic about the lessons, and about a week after the Glencoe lessons, Miller and I headed into Atkinson to teach Nunn’s class. The experience was slightly different, as I hadn’t gone to school at Atkinson. Even so, I felt more comfortable teaching this time. For the first time, Miller and I were able to fit the climate change activity into the presentation. For the activity, we gave the students “before and after” pictures of glaciers. Half of the pictures dated back to the early 20th century, and half were modern pictures of the same glaciers. They looked very different, which made the matching process difficult for the students, and also showed them the effects of climate change.
Once again, it felt wonderful to be able to teach younger students about such an important topic. Nunn also saw another benefit to the lessons. “In fourth grade, students learn and practice the speaking skills needed to effectively convey a message to an audience,” she said. “Having high school students model exemplary speaking skills provided the younger students with a real life example of how to effectively educate an audience.”
PPS and other school systems have shown that they don’t see climate education as a priority. I wish that I could have been taught much earlier about the causes and effects of climate change; I could have started my activism at a younger age if that had been the case. Sometimes, though, you have to make your own solution to problems like these. There are few roadblocks preventing high schoolers from emailing their elementary school teachers and asking to borrow some class time to teach about climate change.
Nunn added, “As a professional educator, I would gladly welcome back future high school students to share their scientific understanding of how the local decisions we make directly impact our Earth at a global level and how we can live more responsibly to prevent further, negative changes to the Earth’s climate.”
Eliot Brody is a recent graduate of Franklin High School in Portland, Oregon. He has been accepted to continue his studies in climate change education at Occidental College in Los Angeles. We hope that Eliot will be willing to contribute future articles as he learns more about climate change education.