The Long Road Toward Climate Literacy

Learning the ABCs of climate change requires more than the right science, educators at the AGU meeting in San Francisco say. New teaching methods, better understanding of science are also needed.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, Dec. 3, 2012 — Tackling the nation’s climate illiteracy, you could argue, begins in elementary school. And that’s where the obstacles begin.

Grinell Smith, a teaching professor at San Diego State University, cited a handful of stark realities Monday during a talk on climate literacy at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

First, the big picture: The United States is terrific at winning Nobel Prizes, but while America produces top-notch scientists “we’re not so good at educating the rest of us,” Grinell said.

Fewer than 20 percent of middle school teachers majored in a science subject in college, and fewer than 10 percent of elementary school teachers have even a science minor under their belt, Grinell said. Combine that fact with public schools’ all-consuming focus on high-stakes standardized tests in math and English, and little time is devoted in grade school to teaching science.

Grinell outlined a three-year project funded by NASA to study the challenge, help bring 6th grade teachers up to speed on climate science, and then help them teach the subject to 6th graders (learn more about the project’s resources for teachers here).

Grinell’s talk was one of several Monday morning. Nicole Holthuis with the NASA/Stanford Global Climate Change Education project spoke of the tension in classrooms between the common teaching method of rapid-fire questioning that elicits quick responses from students, and the more time consuming but ultimately more productive discussions that begin with teachers asking open-ended questions.

Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said achieving climate literacy, for people young and old, requires that people acquire broader skills — not just knowledge about climate science and climate change.

He advocated for a “scientific meta-literacy” in which people acquire the skills to distinguish credible sources of information from unreliable ones. Students, and everyone for that matter, should know how the peer review process works, how science is funded, and how to find accurate scientific information, particularly on controversial topics, on the Internet and elsewhere.

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman is a freelance writer covering science and environmental topics. He has more than 20 years experience in the news business. (E-mail: bruce@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @brucelieberman1)
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