December 15, 2018
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What Maine youth are learning in school about climate change

A woman walks past a map showing the elevation of the sea in the last 22 years during the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 11, 2015.

Recently, climate change and society’s response to it have been major news due to the World Climate Change Conference near Paris held in December. Policies designed to combat and adapt to climate change will need legislative and public support to be enacted and effective once enacted.

A recent poll finds most U.S. (71 percent) and Maine (64 percent) adults believe climate change is already happening, but there is less consensus on whether we need to worry about it or how to deal with it. For example, the same poll shows that only 53 percent of Mainers are worried about climate change, and only 34 percent think climate change will harm them personally.

This is troubling because Mainer’s health and Maine’s economy are already being affected by climate change – as evidenced by a sharp increase in Lyme disease, and losses to the lobster, shellfish and fishing industries as the Gulf of Maine becomes warmer and more acidic.  

Given climate change’s effects occur over decades, one question is how youth are being educated about climate change. To find out, we developed and administered an email survey to all 2,399 middle and high school teachers in Maine, of which 369 (16 percent) responded.

When asked how often they teach about climate change, 63 percent said occasionally, and 20 percent said frequently. (Only 18 percent said not at all.) When these teachers were asked why they taught about climate change, 68 percent stated they saw it as an important topic.

Interestingly, we find that climate change is not solely taught in environmental science classes. In fact, 32 percent of the teachers who teach climate change taught only social science classes; 42 percent only taught biophysical science classes; and 26 percent taught both types of classes.

All teachers were asked what courses should include teaching about climate change. Not surprisingly, most teachers thought climate change should be taught in earth (83 percent), environmental (83 percent) or general (69 percent) science classes or in biology (65 percent). However, other classes were also mentioned: social studies (46 percent), history (44 percent), English literature (25 percent) and economics (24 percent).

Although almost all climate scientists acknowledge that climate change is happening, there are people who deny it exists. As a result, we wanted to see how teachers who teach climate change are managing the presentation of conflicting viewpoints. Sixty-eight percent of these teachers say that all claims should be discussed with science emphasized, illustrating that although teachers take into account all claims of the argument, they consider factual evidence as a key tool for finding consensus.

Looking at what climate change topics are important for students to learn in schools, most teachers who teach climate change felt students should learn about the human causes of climate change (80 percent), the greenhouse effect/global warming (74 percent), and the impacts to society (75 percent) and human health (73 percent).

Less popular topics included abrupt climate change (48 percent), earth’s radiative balance (36 percent) and national security impacts (35 percent).

When asked what barriers inhibit teaching climate change, the majority of teachers who teach climate change felt the highest barrier was not enough time (50 percent), followed by not enough resources (19 percent). Fear of scaring students and outside pressures were not barriers.

We also gathered teachers’ agreement with numerous statements about climate change.

Among all teachers, most of them agreed that Earth’s temperature has been rising during the last 100 years (90 percent), that this is a serious problem (94 percent), and that it is mostly due to human activity (82 percent).

They also agreed that climate change can happen abruptly (71 percent) and will affect them in their lifetime (91 percent). They also feel that most of the world will be negatively impacted by climate change (81 percent) and that extreme weather events are related to climate change (83 percent).

Finally, 98 percent agree students should learn about climate change in school, and 94 percent agree that students should learn about potential solutions to climate change.

These findings provide some insight into teachers’ attitudes on the severity of climate change and the necessity of teaching of it in our school system. They also provide an interesting view into the diverse ways teachers are including a variety of climate change topics in Maine classrooms.

Bjorn Grigholm is a PhD candidate in the School of Earth and Climate Sciences; Amy Kireta is a PhD student in the Ecology and Environmental Sciences Program, and Mario Teisl is a professor in the School of Economics. They had assistance from an undergraduate, Chelsea Ogun, and M.S. student, Elyse Doyle, in the School of Economics, all at the University of Maine. The research was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation Adaptation to Abrupt Climate Change IGERT program and the University of Maine’s Center for Undergraduate Research.


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