CSTA Classroom Science

Age Appropriate Climate Education and Conservation Messaging

Beth Callaghan, Teacher Programs Supervisor, Monterey Bay Aquarium

As educators, we want to provide experiences that are relevant and authentic. So when learning can be tied to a current issue such as climate change, it is tempting to dive in with gusto to leverage the enthusiasm, engagement and even concern of our students. We need to use caution and consider that while material (climate change for example) may feel relevant and even urgent to teach, it may not be developmentally appropriate for all students. 

In his book Beyond Ecophobia, education writer David Sobel describes the paradox at the heart of ecophobia (a sense of dread or helplessness about the future, specifically for our environment): “As we become more aware, more eco-literate, many of us also become increasingly overwhelmed,” and “[I]nstead of developing a sense of agency . . . [we can feel] a helpless sense of dread about the future.” In addition, engaging students in concepts that are too complex or abstract for their developing cognitive abilities creates potential for seeding misconceptions that may be difficult to spot or remedy later on.

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Student Engaged in Learning

This past year, the Monterey Bay Aquarium intentionally piloted our Climate Action Projects Summit with educators of grades 6-12. The goals of the program were to increase teachers’ knowledge and confidence to teach about climate change science (and the solutions necessary to counter its effects and begin to reverse or drawdown the human-caused carbon in our atmosphere)using a solution-oriented, project-based structure to counter student anxiety about current environmental issues and teachers’ feelings of powerlessness to support their students.

This collaborative, community-focused and action-oriented action project structure resulted in learning that was engaging, meaningful and which built students’ real world problem solving and collaborative skills. At the same time, the process built a positive and hopeful classroom culture for both students and teachers. The strategy worked because it was grounded in actions that students in these grade bands could take. We scaffolded the project process and provided theoretical and real world examples of successful, student-led projects. 

A look at the NGSS indicates agreement with this approach by explicitly including the greenhouse effect, climate change and its effects for grades 6-12 and explicitly omitting them for K-5 (See Figure 1.)
So what do you do with younger students? They hear and see news about and may even experience issues that are attributable to climate change; dismissively reassuring words or denial are not options that build trust, support curiosity or develop agency in young learners.

A guideline we use at the Aquarium is “No gloom and doom before 5th grade”.

Guideline What it could look or sound like
Gently correct irrational fears but don’t downplay their anxiety.

"The entire world will not explode into flames, but the fires happening now are scary for families." 

“Scientists and engineers are working on solutions to help us make better choices. This is how we know there are things we can do!”

Shift kids’ focus from anxiety to action by pivoting to solutions.

People and organizations around the world are working on solutions. Here are some things we can do to help. (These should be actions within their locus of control, which changes as they grow up.):

K-5: Show care for other beings, be kind and gentle; Keep animals in their natural homes; Turn off the water when brushing our teeth; turn off lights when we leave a room; clean up after ourselves.

6-12: All of the above, and: Write letters of concern or thank you to elected or appointed officials and community leaders, initiate a community action project [1], look for youth-led organizations that are doing climate advocacy work or activism and volunteer!

And lastly, use the standards! Generally, the Next Generation Science Standards emphasize weather and climate for Grades K-5, Climate change Grades 6-12. In this way, students can be prepared to address climate change issues when it is developmentally appropriate while building their understanding of age appropriate weather and climate concepts and supports their critical thinking and argumentation skills. California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts (“EP&Cs”) focus on using the environment as context for learning and are integrated into NGSS, as well as the 2016 History and Social Studies and 2019 Health Education frameworks, across all grade bands and focus on the ways that humans depend on natural systems and can influence them in both negative and positive ways. 

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This also means getting students outside for learning early and often. Research shows the importance of getting kids outside for their physical, mental and emotional well-being and to foster a connection to the natural world. Again, from David Sobel: “What’s important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it, before being asked to heal its wounds.” It’s also important to remember to provide ourselves with opportunities to be in the restorative presence of the natural world as Carl Safina writes in his Orion winning book The View from Lazy Point - An unnatural year in the natural world  “Each time science tightens a coil in the slack of our understanding, it elaborates its fundamental discovery: connection.”  With a focus on empathy for animals and nature’s ability to restore both itself and us, all is not doom and gloom.

Nature’s continuous renewal points toward our future and focusing on how we can support and be a part of that renewal can be a unifying, restorative and hopeful approach.

 Results of a keyword search of NGSS for “climate change”

Grade Band Number of Performance Expectations Number of DCIs
9-12 3 6
6-8 1 0
K-5 2* 0

*“Assessment does not include the greenhouse effect or climate change.”
Figure 1: Results of “climate change” keyword search in the Next Generation Science Standards

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Figure 2: Grades 9-12 Performance Expectations that include climate change

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Beth Callaghan

Beth is a CASE member and part of the CASE Environmental Literacy Committee. She develops teacher professional development programs for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Education Division. After earning her master's degrees in marine biological sciences and science education, Beth taught a variety of high school science courses and provided professional development for science teachers of at-risk and incarcerated youth in Massachusetts. Since moving to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Education Division 10 years ago, Beth has worked with a highly collaborative team to incorporate the building of environmental identity and environmental literacy into Aquarium programs. As part of their work to incorporate culturally responsive teaching and develop and empower a diverse group of young leaders who are inspired, science literate, confident and ready to act as agents of ocean conservation, she recently launched a year-long Climate Action Projects Summit for classroom and informal educators who work with youth in Grades 6-12. Her passion for getting students and teachers outside for fieldwork is equaled only by her passion for making the science process engaging, relevant and accessible to all.



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