A Chance to Make a Difference: Tackling Climate Change in a Middle School Classroom

by Angela Duke
Northwest Expedition Academy
Hayden, Idaho

n the days of selfies and social media mania, it is often a difficult job getting middle schoolers to look up instead of down. When I first introduced the topic of climate change to my students, the reactions were mixed. But most importantly, several heads looked up.

Climate change in the classroom has gained great momentum and for good reason. What more real of a problem than the state of our planet? And what better a subject to let our young people tackle? The environment of the future will be theirs to live in after all. How powerful is it to empower students to solve problems that may have always seemed out of reach or “too big?” Facilitating science-based research on real world problems empowers students not only through the skills they acquire from this type of work but from the subject knowledge gained. Climate change curriculum in the classroom also allows students to see how much of a difference they can make not only on their school campus but in their larger community as well. That makes the work important. Investigating climate change, understanding human activities that contribute to climate change and formulating strategies to slow climate change down also cultivates environmental-literacy.

At first, I was intimidated. Climate change is such a huge topic with so many different avenues and tangents to get lost in. Then I happened upon Green Ninja – the climate-action superhero. This discovery immediately took me back to my own childhood, watching episodes of Captain Planet, an environmental superhero in his own time. I was instantly intrigued. Green Ninja (www.greenninja.org) is a middle school curriculum that focuses on helping students design a more sustainable world. Each grade level (grade six through eight) consists of six units. Each unit is centered around a series of phenomena and central storyline that seamlessly blends topics together in ways that make sense. The units use elements of project-based learning to bring the content to students in engaging and entertaining ways. For example, embedded in the curriculum is access to animation and live-action videos that introduce and reinforce topics of study. My students also enjoyed playing the environmentally-themed video game which is used to hook students and get them to interact with a serious topic, the effects of human-released carbon ithen our atmosphere, in a low-stress setting. And all the while they are learning. Everybody loves a hero, as the saying goes, and Green Ninja is no exception. Green Ninja gives students access to points of change in a way that is not overwhelming. His appearance is familiar and friendly, which allows students to focus on what is being said and the main lesson to be learned from each video.

When it came to prior knowledge, my students all knew the “what” of climate change: what to do, what not to do, what was better and what was worse. The three “Rs” of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” came up a lot. What stopped them in their tracks is when I asked, “Why should we take action? Why should we reduce, recycle, and reuse? Why do people think solar is better? Why do people think it’s better to buy a hybrid or full electric vehicle?” There were lots of shoulder shrugs. Then came the answer I’m sure we’ve all heard, “because they said it was better.” The all-encompassing “they.” “They” are usually the source of most misconceptions. The majority of my students’ misconceptions revolved around the difference between weather and climate. I knew there was a whole unit in Green Ninja on that topic so when we got there, we dug in. I made sure students had time to access prior knowledge and allowed them time to journal I before each subtopic. I also frequently built in time for them to look back through and reflect on any changes in their thinking that happened. I wanted their understanding and interpretation to be natural and their own discovery.

If I had to choose one series of lessons that I believe made the strongest impact on my students, it would have to be those surrounding our carbon footprint. There are several websites, such as Green Ninja, that give free access to videos that can be used as a starting point to a unit or subtopic. In one instance, I used the Green Ninja video entitled, “Footprint Renovation.” You can see it here: greenninja.org/Green_Ninja_Show/31. In this video, an average homeowner awakens to find that his feet are swelling in size. The viewer is shown several areas in the house that could use some eco-friendly renovation. For example, the window is open and the heat is on. All of the homeowner’s electronics have been left on. There is no recycling or compost bin and the garbage is overflowing. Our superhero, Green Ninja, arrives to save the day (well, in this case, the night) and there is a direct visual correlation between the renovations being made and the decrease of swelling in the homeowner’s feet. I used this as an entry event to a new unit and followed the video with partner talk around a simple open-ended question, “What was that all about?” I remember the room bursting into conversation. Each table of students talking about what they saw, what they liked and what it could possibly mean. I had them hooked.

Later on, in that same unit, my students collected energy-use data from their own homes over one four-week period. Then they designed an energy reduction plan for their household. After they worked with their family to implement the plan, they collected data again over another four-week collection period to measure their reduction in energy use. But I didn’t want to stop there. I wanted my students to continue climbing the environmental literacy ladder and move from awareness to knowledge to attitude to skills to collective action. I combined portions from a few different lessons from the TeachEngineering website (https://www.teachengineering.org/) to put together a research assignment where students collaboratively collected current data on factors that influence our carbon footprint, such as transportation choices, appliance choices, and food choices. I wanted to grow students’ environmental literacy and know it starts on an individual level, so I asked each student to decide on a factor that was of the most interest to them. Students were then given time to research this factor and gather as much data as they could. While they conducted their research, I used this time as a benchmark of learning and formative assessment and checked in with them, “Can you explain why you chose the factor you did? Do you understand the assignment? Do you know where to search for the data you need?”

Once our research block was over, I asked them to put themselves together into groups of four with those with the same factor. Another component of environmental literacy is to make educated decisions as a group. So here, students worked collaboratively to synthesize their individual research into one combined and complete presentation. This presentation was their first graded assessment.

I could have stopped there. But another important component of environmental literacy is to share knowledge with others. To satisfy this, each group was asked to present their new knowledge and findings to two different audiences. Their first audience were third graders who were also learning about making good environmental choices. I used these presentations as a benchmark, and formative assessment, of their learning. Groups had to know their content well since, because of the audience’s age, my students could not just read lines of data or pages of facts. Some groups made posters and others brought in props. Still other groups wrote fictional stories with the new information embedded.

The students’ second audience was adults. Their presentation to adults had to not only contain research data and facts but also real, logical, feasible solutions to lowering carbon footprints. They were given choice as to how they would present; posters, Google slideshows, speeches with artifacts or even Powtoons (a platform to make your own digital video or presentation). This presentation was their second and final graded assessment. To ensure students knew what to expect and what they’d be graded on, I borrowed from rubrics from Buck Institute for Education (bie.org). They specialize in project-based learning. The rubrics can be daunting if you’ve never used them before but it’s easy enough to adapt them to your students and your projects.

Tackling climate change in the classroom was new to me. It was not easy. But one of my biggest tips to other educators is to remember it’s okay to try something new and not know it one hundred percent. Just as we give our students time to improve on their skills, we also need to give ourselves time to improve our skills. Sometimes that means jumping in with both feet and taking on problems as they come. Not everything is going to go right, but that’s O.K. What a learning experience it will be!

At the end of the year, we reflected on what we had accomplished. I had my students reflect individually in their science notebooks about their contributions to the project and how they felt it went overall. With their project groups, they reflected on their performance as a team, how it went and improvements they would make next time. Finally, as a whole class, we debriefed the entire experience and what was enjoyable and what was not.

Did I feel my students had an engaging experience? Absolutely! Heck, I had an engaging experience! Did my students feel they had an engaging experience? Definitely. In the end, out of the ninety students I taught that year, about twenty students demonstrated they were committed to continuing to take action to lower their carbon footprints. And while I would be lying if I didn’t say I hoped to get through to many more, I remembered to practice what I preach and take the advice I often give students, “If we each do something small, together we can do something big.” So this year it was twenty students, but next time around it might be thirty. Knowledge is contagious. Even a small number of students changing their actions and leading by example still equals a big win for the planet!




Resources (alphabetized) mentioned in the article:

Buck Institute for Education (www.bie.org): A nonprofit and leader in project-based learning. Several free resources that include collaborative work rubrics and project-planning tools can be found on their website. They also offer professional development for teachers.

Cool Climate Network, U.C. Berkeley (coolclimate.berkeley.edu/calculator): There is a carbon footprint calculator here. You can also google carbon footprint calculator and find several options. Some are more student-friendly than others.

Green Ninja (www.greenninja.org):  NGSS middle school science provider and creator of many great, free videos.  With Green Ninja, each unit of instruction includes phenomena, hands-on activities and projects that allow students to use science and engineering to create their own environmental solutions. 

PowToon (www.powtoon.com): A digital animated presentation tool that can be used by students to create Public Service Announcements, 100-word presentations, animated cartoons and educational presentations. Great for teachers to use to flip instruction too.

National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF): References to environmental literacy based on NEEF’s “Environmental Literacy Report 2015”: www.neefusa.org/resource/environmental-literacy-report-2015

Teaching Engineering (www.teachingengineering.org): Great collections of supplementary lessons focused on how to use engineering in the classroom.


About the author: Angela Duke is a fifth-grade teacher at Northwest Expedition Academy in Hayden, Idaho. She previously taught sixth grade Language Arts and Science for seven years in San Jose, California. She enjoys participating in as many outdoor activities as she can with her husband and three children. She is passionate about project-based learning and strives to give her students as many hands-on experiences as possible. Her goal every year is to develop her class’ growth mindset and take the away stigma of science being “too hard”. She enjoys developing new fun and engaging curriculum and sharing her experiences with others.


More about Green Ninja: The goal of Green Ninja is to create environmental solutions through education. The project grew out of an NSF grant funding academic research at San Jose State University that identified key elements to support student engagement and success in science.

Green Ninja is now using this knowledge to create materials that help schools improve how they teach science, while also inspiring student agency around environmental topics. Their middle school curriculum is aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards and builds on Green Ninja videos to help inspire student engagement and success. If you are interested in learning more, go to www.greenninja.org or email info@greenninja.org.