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Why bringing climate change into the classroom can be complicated

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Climate activists see bringing climate change into the classroom as a simple matter of updating the science curriculum. But a recent survey revealed that science teachers are often ill-equipped to deal with the subject.


Asurvey published in the journal Science earlier this year showed that most science teachers spend little time teaching climate change - just an hour or two a year.


But making climate change a classroom priority doesn’t always win you fans.


Craig Whipkey works the subject into his science curriculum at Central Valley High School in western Pennsylvania. It's an old steel region, and he gets called “tree hugger” a lot. It came up again just a few weeks ago, after he took students on a field trip.


“I had a student come up to me, and the young lady informed me that her dad was coming to pick her up, but would I mind going somewhere else, because her dad didn’t like me very much,” he says.


Whipkey says he’s gotten used to it. And he’s not alone.


Other science teachers have been challenged for teaching climate change. Many times, it becomes an issue when a district is ordering new textbooks.


Some school board members don’t like when books present human-caused climate change as fact. They want to provide competing views.


Science teachers at the national level say there is no other side.


Minda Berbeco is the policy director for the National Center for Science Education. She takes issue when school board members call the lack of balance unfair.


“It’s really unfair not to teach kids the accurate science," she says. "It’s really unfair to not demonstrate what the evidence shows and what the data shows.”


Berbeco says when school boards choose science textbooks, they’re really deciding how students will understand climate change.


So far, we haven’t heard about this controversy much in Michigan classrooms.


Teaching human-caused climate change came up in discussions over something called the Next Generation Science Standards a few years ago.


In 2013, state lawmakers blocked approval of those standards, at least in part because they approach climate change as scientific consensus.


Robbie Cramer is director of the Michigan Science Teachers Association. She says that action was disappointing.


“Oh, we had worked so hard to analyze these standards. I mean, I think we worked on them for two, two and a half, years, spending hours and hours." she says. "And we really believed these standards were going to help Michigan students be deeper scientific thinkers.”


Since that time there has been a lot of back and forth. Late last year, the state approved its own K-12 science standards. Like the national ones, they call for teachers to discuss how humans are impacting the climate.


Cramer’s not sure if they’ll get pushback in local districts. Schools will start teaching to these new standards next fall.

Julie Grant is a reporter with the environment news program, The Allegheny Front.


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