Climate change education varies in Iowa

There is a strong body of scientific evidence supporting the existence of human-caused climate change, but Iowa teachers are split on how to educate students about it, and their students also have very mixed opinions on the subject. IowaWatch and student reporters from the Cedar Falls High School Tiger Hi-Line newspaper dug deeper into how climate change is being taught in schools around Iowa.

According to a new study published in the journal Science, middle and high school science teachers In the United States are educating students on climate change “just one to two hours on average over an academic year.” The study’s accompanying survey received data from “1,500 teachers from high schools and middle schools in all 50 states.” It found that 30 percent of the teachers taught their students that global warming “is likely due to natural causes.” Twelve percent said they did not emphasize human causes, and half of that group did not speak about causes at all. The survey also found that many of the teachers did not have a grasp on the topic and were giving their students misinformation about climate change. There is strong scientific evidence suggesting that climate change is widely impacted by human activity.

Though the evidence is there, teachers are still struggling with the best ways to educate their students on climate change. The Science study also found that almost one third of the teachers surveyed reported “conveying messages that are contradictory, emphasizing the scientific consensus on human causation and the idea that many scientists believe the changes have natural causes.” Students could be receiving mixed messages from their teachers about the subject.

Recently, IowaWatch and the Tiger Hi-Line sent out their own survey to all science teachers in Iowa that aimed to find out how or if climate change is being taught in the state. They have found that the information collected from around the state of Iowa concurs with that of the nationally distributed study. Although over 90 percent of scientists agree that the dominant reason for climate change is human activity, the national study showed that only 30 percent of middle school teachers and 45 percent of high school teachers correctly identified the fact.

This result is similar to the snapshot survey of 133 science teachers in Iowa in which one out of three (31.6 percent) reported that human activity is the primary cause for global warming and climate change and should be included in lessons. Another 66.9 percent recognized human causes but said that teachers should make it clear that there are competing theories. Less than half — 47.7 percent — reported that they teach it as a theory without concluding whether or not it is right or wrong. Only 19.7 percent of 133 teachers reported that climate change should be taught as a fact.

According to a bulletin put out by Cedar Falls High School, “In 2008 the Iowa Legislature approved steps that require all accredited public schools to begin implementation of the Iowa Core Curriculum by 2012.” The Iowa Common Core curriculum has mandatory sections that cover climate change. Mandi Sanderman, the AEA 267 consultant for science, said that the Iowa Science Standards include asking students to “analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.”

Yet, the head of the science department at Cedar Falls High School, Lynn Griffin, still said that teachers should be cautious when dealing with this subject. “You have to be careful in that you’re talking about theories of climate change and not facts, because everything is still a theory,” Griffin said. “There’s correlations, yes, but there are not direct results yet.”

In her ecology unit, Cedar Falls High School biology teacher Debbie Paulsen recently started addressing climate change in her class, but beyond that, she leaves the issue up for her students to debate, due to her own personal beliefs. “There’s natural things going on, but even though we’ve had a significant impact, we’re getting pretty egocentrical to think that it’s just us,” Paulsen said. “We present some items of human’s impact in the environment, but they kind of leave it just there. In the future, that may change, but the curriculum is kind of evolving.”

Chemistry teacher Jason Steffen shares a similar viewpoint and does not hesitate to question climate change. “I do link climate change to man-made causes, but I also link some climate change to natural causes. The debate then becomes on how much is caused by which factor,” Steffen said. “The science is very young. Is it happening? Yes. Is it all gloom and doom? We don’t know yet. It’s in its infancy.”

The elective Advanced Placement Environmental Science course at Cedar Falls High School carries a heavy focus on global warming. Science teacher Meghan Reynolds said that she frequently shows evidence of climate change within her lectures in her AP classes. “I think the data is fairly overwhelming. Even if there was natural warming occurring, the rate at which it’s increased and the correlation with increasing human activity is just a really strong cause-and effect,” Reynolds said.

One of the students in her class, senior Sarah Gao, agreed that climate change is real and that it is a serious concern that warrants addressing. “Pretty much every single [climate] scientist in the world said that this is real. The glaciers are melting, and the icebergs are melting. The jet streams are getting all weird,” Gao said. “There’s all of this physical evidence that’s pointing towards climate change, so it’s really hard not to believe.”

Gao is a part of the increasing 70 percent of American citizens who believe that climate change is happening, according to a Climatex Progress poll. Gao is passionate about green issues because she said she believes humans need to change their behavior to combat climate change. “The deadline right now is really pressing, so people need to get together before it’s too late,” Gao said.

Despite the high numbers who are convinced of climate change, the generation of students in schools today also includes many skeptics of climate change evidence.

Junior Ashton Cross said global warming is part of long-term climate phases that the Earth goes through. “Back before we had technology, the earth went through hot flashes and cold flashes in a way,” Cross said. “Melting and freezing has always been a big problem with the climate.”

Other skeptical students, such as junior Brennan Kohls, said that the whole ordeal may have more hidden motives. “If you look at these groups who are doing the research, their main funders are the U.S. government, and what better way to increase your funding than telling your main funder what they want to hear? The globe’s been warming ever since it started. It’s never been dangerous,” Kohls said. “To me, it just seems like another one of those crazy apocalypse theories. If you look back in the eighties, everyone thought we were going to die from global warming.”

Currently, Kohls is enrolled in the Cedar Falls High School’s environmental science course, making the topic of climate change almost inevitable to avoid. Despite needing to learn about the topic for the class, Kohls still strongly maintains his beliefs. “I try not to get offended,” Kohls said. “I just suck it up and I listen to it anyway. If that’s their opinion, it’s their opinion. I’ll stick to my opinion.”

There is concrete evidence that climate change is real. According to NASA, one of hundreds of organizations around the world that have conducted extensive research on the topic, “The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is very likely human-induced and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented in the past 1,300 years.” There is compelling proof all around the world that it is taking place. Global temperatures are rising as well as sea levels. Oceans are becoming warmer, and the Arctic ice cap is depleting. The amount of snow and glaciers on mountain tops has “decreased over the past five decades.” The sea is becoming more and more acidic as well, which affects sea life.

While most of the science staff at Cedar Falls High School were in agreement with the idea of climate change, there were a few outliers. Some science teachers in the school do not believe that climate change is caused by humans and is one of the most critical global challenges of the 21st century.

Maria Perez, an adjunct instructor of biology at the University of Northern Iowa, said that climate change should not be a two-sided issue at all. In fact, it is her pet-peeve when people ask the question “Do you believe in climate change?” because there is evidence that proves it is real. “I think [climate change] is the main challenge we have right now,” Perez said. Perez teaches a capstone class to University of Northern Iowa students about the subject.

“I look at the current impacts and show that climate change is a reality right now,” she said, explaining material she covers in her capstone. Perez also shows her students that “depending on what we do, the impacts are going to get really bad depending on our course of action.” It is very important to her that people are educated on climate change. She teaches a range of students, majoring in many different areas across the university. Yet, she tries to make the topic of climate change accessible to each of them.

Although students of Cedar Falls High School do not have the benefit of taking a capstone class on the subject of climate change like college students do, Perez said it is vital that they are educated on the subject. “This is the generation that can change things,” she said. For students of public schools like Cedar Falls High School, Perez said they should be able to question how their school is impacting the environment. “Kids should be able to ask their schools for accountability on the actions they are taking,” she said.

Though climate change can be a daunting subject, Perez is optimistic about the future. She mentioned more than once that scientists have evidence for climate change and solutions, but there just needs to be a political movement to implement real change. She gives her students evidence for climate change and then asks them which political candidates’ policies could do the most good for our environment. “We just need political will to change things, and I want them to know that they can influence that political will. So, I want them to take away that they can be part of the change,” she said.

Kamyar Enshayan, the Director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Education agrees that climate change should not be controversial and is a subject with solid scientific proof that should be taught in schools. Enshayan was shocked to learn that some science teachers do not fully support the evidence of climate change, politely saying that it is “unfortunate.”

Enshayan holds firm that the issue of climate change is “not about believing. It’s about evidence.” He said that there should be an ongoing conversation about environmental issues, and that scientists should be able to hold their views, as long as they can soundly debate them in front of other scientists.

However, Enshayan said that high school students need to be educated about climate change before graduation. “They need to know that climate instability, just like other forms of environmental degradation, are totally a human, cultural, social, economic problem. It’s not a physics thing.” Students need to know that it is the way that we as a species have “arranged our lives,” that is the real problem, Enshayan said.

Enshayan said he is hopeful that by educating the masses, they can lead to changes to overcome the looming threat of the impacts climate change is already having and will continue to have on the planet. He said that schools can make a big difference by encouraging their students to think about environmental issues. “It’s fundamentally important for high schoolers to see, in their own schools, what is possible,” Enshayan said.

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