Teaching Climate Change for Resilience and Hope
When I started teaching high school science, I was full of enthusiasm! I thought I knew best how my students and I could tackle the politicization of climate change — but when I asked students how our learning was going, they were the opposite of enthusiastic.
In fact, they told me, and here I quote, that “every activity [in our ecology and climate unit was] more depressing than the last.”
How, I wondered, could I learn to change that? How could we build a classroom environment focused on climate resilience, while still acknowledging the big feelings that climate anxiety can (rightfully) cause?
Turns out my students were the ones who helped me figure it out!
This video describes the pedagogical content knowledge my students and I have generated together over a decade in AP Biology and Earth & space science, leveraging vital aspects of rigorous, resilience-focused STEM teaching like
- practicing authentic scientific skills through active, student-centered learning
- experimenting with models and simulations
- grounding learning in place-based experiences
- giving back through service learning
- uncovering solutions through problem-based guided inquiry
I'm so grateful to my students for everything we've learned together, as well as for their delightful help in creating this snapshot of our work. :)
Share your thoughts
Thanks for viewing my video!
Hi there! I'm a high school science teacher from the Midwest who's passionate about building collaborative learning experiences that co-create a better future.
Thanks for viewing my story of how my students taught me an important lesson and co-generating knowledge with us! Please "like" the video if you enjoyed it :)
What I'd love to learn from you all this week:
- What is something your students have taught you about your own teaching? What did you change in your teaching practice as a result?
- What can teachers do to engage learners with emotionally difficult STEM topics (like climate and environmental change!) in ways that build hope and resilience?
I'm looking forward to our conversations this week!
In reply to Thanks for viewing my video! by Kirstin Milks
Thank you for your work into the future!
You are not only opening the eyes of the youth about human caused problems but most importantly you are giving them hope with the proper tools to make changes. And by meeting your students where they are you are modeling a caring mindset that they will strive for to meet the challenges.
In reply to Thank you for your work into the future! by Cassia Izaac
That mindset is the most important part
Thanks so much for the kind words! I am certain that the caretaking we do of one another -- and our planet -- is the "secret sauce" of our classroom.
In reply to Thanks for viewing my video! by Kirstin Milks
Wow, I'm so inspired after watching your video! I love the line about "mirroring the work of climate scientists". Providing students with authentic learning experiences that develop college and career skills is so important as they prepare for post-secondary learning. I love seeing the learning in action with students going outside the classroom to apply their knowledge.
In reply to Authentic Learning by Jessica Holloway
... and we need to make sure students KNOW it's authentic
Hi there, Jessica!
Thanks for the kind feedback on the video. One thing I've learned that I don't highlight here is that students need to be specifically TOLD that they are doing the same types of thinking as climate scientists.
For example: we do this wonderful activity from the Byrd Center so students can make some arguments about the precipitation levels in different years' records using a simulated ice core. I tell them that scientists do the SAME types of work, only with the chemistry of the core and not just its visible/tactile physical attributes. After they do their own analysis and get positive feedback on it, they are MUCH more likely to accept as truth the results of scientists when looking at temperature/oxygen isotopes and CO2 levels over time. It's a great way to build credibility!
Fabulous Video! Thanks!
Hi Kirsten, Loved this video and how you addressed student feedback, student anxiety with the antidote of problem solving and increased student agency. This goes so well with our theme of the month "Building Resilience for the Climate Anxious Generation." If you haven't yet, please check out the panel and resources at: https://stemtlnet.org/theme
Thanks again for this very valuable contribution!!!
In reply to Fabulous Video! Thanks! by Joni Falk
Thank you, Joni, for helping…
Thank you, Joni, for helping me remember to share the link to the October 2022 STEMTLnet theme: Building Resilience for the Climate Anxious Generation!
Resilience and Angst about Climate
I echo Joni Falk's comments about the wonderful ways that your video emphasizes student agency and the connections between individual and collective learning and discovery about politically fraught topics like climate change.
At one time I worked for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and let that organization's efforts to confront challenges to teaching evolution in the nation's public schools. What I learned is that while there were overriding themes about the opposition to teaching about evolution, there also were very localized issues and concerns. Your video nicely addresses focusing students' learning on concerns from their communities and local environments that should be of concern to them. What other tips would you give to teachers who, despite their best efforts to engage students as you are doing, are still meeting pushback from students, their parents, or community groups?
Thank you again for this inspiring video.
In reply to Resilience and Angst about Climate by Jay Labov
Hi, Jay! Thanks for your…
Thanks for your post - it has definitely been a learning journey to think about how to teach such a politicized climate in my context, a "town and gown" county in the Midwest's Rust Belt where political discourse mirrors that of the US at large.
Data from my home state suggest that people in our state are likely to *privately* agree that climate change is human-caused, currently happening, and a threat to our state. However, folks are still hesitant to express their knowledge in public forums or community spaces like the grocery store or church hall. Farmers won't use the phrase "climate change," but they WILL speak clearly and plainly about changes in growing seasons that are already negatively impacting their livelihoods. So part of what we must do, as climate-forward educators, is help students practice talking about climate change in public and in community. That's an important first step where I live!
As to your question -- what can teachers do if they are still meeting pushback from educational stakeholders about teaching climate change? -- I have several thoughts:
I'm curious to hear from other folks as well -- what can teachers do if they meet community, family, or student pushback about teaching about climate and environmental change?
Great Peek into your classroom and teaching practice
Very inspiring! I have gone on a similar journey with the unintentional "doom and gloom" and then moved to a more solutions focus, however, I see now how to better incorporate my local phenomenon to raise interest and engagement even more. Thank you Kirstin.
In reply to Great Peek into your classroom and teaching practice by Bradford Hill
global AND Local
Bradford, this two-pronged strategy is right on — many of the opportunities for agency are a bit removed from one's daily surroundings (Great book title that is to the point: "To save the world, click here") -- and local knowledge, love, and action can have a multiplier effect (and intergenerational, too).
In reply to global AND Local by Brian Drayton
Brian, I am definitely…
Brian, I am definitely experiencing that duality right now -- it helps to have deep connections to people (like you and the rest of the Climate and Equity team!) that can help me see the forest and the trees. I'm working this year on thinking about how to leverage inter-generational learning as well - do you (or anyone!) happen to have any favorite framings and/or tasks that do that? :) Kirstin
In reply to Great Peek into your classroom and teaching practice by Bradford Hill
Bradford!! Why hello there!!…
Bradford!! Why hello there!!
I think a lot of us have been on this journey -- and I think the puzzle of how to help authentically do "solutions" within state and local classroom standards is a tricky (but rewarding!) one. I was inspired by bio teacher Jon Darkow's story of using computer simulations as a starting place; folks can read his story here!
Listening to students
It's so important in dealing with environmental issues to listen to the kids — as if it isn't ALWAYS a good idea to pay attention to student thinking. But climate change and similiar topics can really touch students' sense of security and efficacy (and hope), so listening carefully as you portray here is especially valuable — and generative of ideas..
Learning as I go...
This is a powerful and inspiring video, Kirstin. I've never directly taught climate change in the classroom but can see how it can evoke big emotions that you mentioned (anxiety, fear, and anger). I noticed some students expressing these similar, big emotions when I taught some STEP UP lessons that examines underrepresentation of women in physics and the role of implicit bias and cultural stereotypes. So when you ask "What can teachers do to engage learners with emotionally difficult STEM topics (like climate and environmental change!) in ways that build hope and resilience?" ...I don't feel like I have the best answer for my situation. I am hopeful that teaching DEI brings awareness for when they're older, but I don't give as much student agency with the issue as you do with climate change.
Thanks for sharing your story with us and for making me think how students can lead with agency.
In reply to Learning as I go... by Elegan Kramer
Thank you, Elegan! I'm glad…
Thank you, Elegan!
I'm glad you bring up DEI work, as teaching climate and environmental change most powerful involves a climate justice lens. In one of my other roles in our school, I'm the facilitator of our student anti-bias group. One thing we've tried hard to do is give students avenues to feel like they are actively steering -- whether that's a youth participatory action research project, a Q and A with community members, or writing up what they've learned for a wider audience. Data on underrepresentation is important and upsetting (and should be!) -- but without a lever that students can help to pull (or create in the first place!), I agree that it can be easy to disengage as a form of self-protection. I'm definitely still figuring it out.
Here's to all of us getting better at finding agency for and with our kids! :) Kirstin
Science and Society
Great video, science and society is such a great theme to work on.
We have designed an air pollution monitoring station to try to connect with our community’s concerns, especially heavy road traffic affecting our neighbourhood.
Tomorrow's climate scientists - monitoring air pollution | Royal Society
In reply to Science and Society by Stephen Devisme
Hi Stephen - this is…
Hi Stephen - this is wonderful!! So glad to have gotten to connect on here and to get to see the variety of projects you all are working on over there. :) Kirstin
It is so interesting how the feelings of the students created a desire for them to dismiss at first. I love how you turned it to show them that they can provide efficacy to the changes within their world. These authentic tasks are incredibly valuable!
In reply to Interesting Insight! by Jodi Zeis
Thank you, Jodi! I feel…
Thank you, Jodi! I feel REALLY fortunate that my students have worked together with me to build them :)
The agency you give students…
The agency you give students is awesome! Not just teaching them to understand the world, but providing them with the tools and beliefs that enable them to have an impact.
In reply to The agency you give students… by Jerod Morehouse
Thank you, Jerod! I feel…
Thank you, Jerod! I feel fortunate that students have worked with me through all these years to develop the program. This was the first year we've done a service learning trip managing invasive species, and so many students felt deeply engaged -- it really helped me see how much that part matters!! :) Kirstin
Masterful teaching with great resources = I am in awe!
Great video! Some of the resources you share went quickly. Would you be willing to share some of the publicly accessible ones that your students find particularly helpful?
I love the arc of learning that you shared. Thanks!
In reply to Masterful teaching with great resources = I am in awe! by Margo Murphy
Resources from this lesson
Hi Margo - that is a great idea!
Here are links to the simulations:
And here is a link to my AP Bio ecology unit plan!
I love to know how would you scale this down to the middle level. Now, I know a lot of high school students may have the passion to learn about climate change but how would integrate engineering as a way to teach climate change?
In reply to Great step! by Yevgeny Pevzner
Literacy and engineering (and in middle grades!)
Hi there, Yevgeny!
My Earth and space science class, which isn't featured in this story, has a whole semester based on weather and climate! We are piloting some beautiful NGSS-aligned resources on engineering in the climate space this winter, but they're brand-new so I can't yet share them.
What I can say is that one of my favorite sequences for helping introductory science students think about climate involves using the website for Project Drawdown and the En-ROADS climate simulation together. I also helped write the curriculum guide for HOW TO CHANGE EVERYTHING, both of which feature additional ideas for middle-grade learners in addition to how to use En-ROADS and Drawdown in a powerful combination.
This video is one of my favorites- and so important for me to see as I work with students who are so much younger. I often worry about how scared they must be whenever we discuss the climate, and know from having so many discussions with my own daughters, 30, 23, and 20, that they have justifiable anger and frustration with the politics and policies, or lack of follow-through. The way you are modeling what scientists do, what climate specialists confront, and how to pursue answers to the students' questions provides agency, and therefore hope. You are doing such important work! Thank you!
In reply to Fabulous job! by Rebecca Cummings
Thank you - this means a lot. :) Kirstin
Hope. Science solves problems which is hopeful.
We must frame climate change as a solvable problem. Which it is! Humans are incredibly inventive and capable, but we must commit to solving the problem.
It is key to demostrate the dangers of climate change towards the human exisitence, but we can not make students feel as if it is futile to try. We can, we must. Be the hero, Solve the problem,
In reply to Hope. Science solves problems which is hopeful. by Andrew Frisch
Commitment is definitely key!
Yes, and it's a commitment to the long haul, too. That's why I've been experimenting with climate-themed resources through the year of AP Bio, rather than just in the ecology unit - so students can see it's not just one-and-done!
Sign me up to become an…
Sign me up to become an environmental agent in your program :)) Wow, very impressive with the weaving of social justice, curriculum, and student mindsets. Have you established any global strategic partnerships to bring their perspectives/collaborations?
In reply to Sign me up to become an… by Douglas Baltz
Thank you, Doug!
No, not yet! That is a cool idea. I'm also really excited about leaning into the UN Sustainability Goals - they've got some cool resources for teachers of students of all ages! :) Kirstin
I applaud you for allowing your students to dive into this topic and acknowledging their feelings about it. This truly gives them agency as you explore the topic and their roles in understanding and role in saving our planet.
In reply to Student Agency by Florence Falatko
Thank you, Flo! That acknowledgement is so important, especially (in my experience) in the post-quarantine classroom. We need more shared language for difficult feelings to work collectively to address these problems! ... and I have learned anger can be useful, as can grief. Those two are emotions I am still learning about, even this far along. :) Kirstin