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From Science to Art, US Teachers Educate Students on Climate Change

Despite growing pressure from deniers, teachers are helping students understand and act to combat climate change.

New York City High School students walk out of classes to protest climate change and the government's inaction on March 15, 2019, in Columbus Circle, New York City.

When students around the world walked out of classes in mid-March to demand government action on climate change, they noted the impact of rising sea levels, increasing air and water temperatures and ever-worsening storms on planet Earth. Many of them had learned about environmental degradation in their science classes, but increasingly, the impact of climate change is being addressed throughout school curricula: in culinary arts classes that cover sustainable agriculture; art classes that illustrate the ways climate impacts migration patterns and population pressures; and math classes that use geometry to design greenhouses and domes.

At El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn, New York, for example, art teacher Joe Matunis began the school year by zeroing in on the migrant caravans that were moving from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border. Class research centered on Honduras, where drought had left approximately 1.3 million people in need of food and other forms of humanitarian aid. Their research also uncovered other causes of migration, including gang violence and hunger.

In turn, Matunis and his students decided they wanted to illustrate the connections between environmental calamity, political turmoil and poverty. “We saw the movement of populations as an opportunity to create an art project that dealt with climate change in Honduras, where coffee plantations and corn crops have been decimated by drought,” Matunis told Truthout. “When crops fail, it causes farmers to move to cities, but if there are no jobs in the cities, people sometimes flee to other countries.”

All told, Matunis and his students spent several months analyzing the link between climate change and migration, ultimately creating an art project that was inspired by the work of fiber artist Judith Scott. “We read about refugees in Syria, Greece and Mexico and thought about what it meant to leave everything behind as they moved from place to place. Most poignant were the stuffed animals left by children who had been forced from their homes under duress,” Matunis said. “We drew the connection between the conditions that are driving people toward the U.S. border and visual signifiers of things that are abandoned — by wrapping and knotting symbolic objects.”

Students at El Puente Academy created this art installation on the topic of climate change.
Students at El Puente Academy created this art installation on the topic of climate change.

And it was not just in art classes that El Puente Academy’s students probed the relationship between climate change and immigration. According to Matunis, science, social studies and history classes also explored the intersection between the refugee crisis, trade policies, climate change and local activism. “We try to give every student the skills, ethics and wherewithal to go out into the world and be fully engaged. We often take our cues from what community-based organizations in our neighborhood are doing,” Matunis said, citing El Puente’s Community Health and Environmental Office, with whom the school has a partnership, and Papel Machete, a community street theater collective whose work centers social justice themes.

Reducing Our Carbon Footprint

Projects like this are happening throughout the U.S.

Mercea Arsenie, an environmental science teacher at Carl Schurz High School in Chicago, calls climate science “an umbrella over everything I teach.” Among other things, the school has an outdoor vegetable patch as well as hydroponic and aquaponic gardens, and students study how food production impacts climate change.

In one of Arsenie’s classes, students were asked to adopt an all-vegetarian or vegan diet for a week, keep a journal, and reflect on their experience. “Some of the students had never before thought about how they shop, where they shop or how they make their food choices,” Arsenie reports. “As a result of this experiment, a few students became vegetarians, and a few others decided to forego meat two days a week and pay closer attention to how the food they eat is processed and produced.”

Arsenie said his goal as a teacher is to make students more aware of what climate change is, what it is not, and how each person can make a difference individually, as part of a family and within the larger community.

Anthony Berdeja, a senior student at Carl Schurz, says that growing up, he was somewhat aware of climate change, but it was only after taking Arsenie’s environmental science class that he understood the magnitude of the crisis. “I had the idea that it was just a change in the weather, but the class taught me how climate impacts small plants, organisms in the water and people all over the world. It made me want to be engaged in the environmental movement and motivated me to want to study environmental engineering or astronomy when I get to college.”

Younger kids are also being educated about climate change.

Michael Soskil teaches science at Wallenpaupack South Elementary School in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, and stresses that he requires his students to delve into materials compiled by NASA before drawing conclusions about the causes of climate change. “The students look at the data and see that humans are having an impact on climate,” he said. “There is universal concern, a desire to know what they can do about it.”

A hands-on project led to contact between Wallenpaupack students and a class in Malawi. Using Empatico, a free video-conferencing program that connects students from different parts of the world, Soskil’s class learned that Malawi is in the throes of a severe drought caused by climate change.

“The students also discovered that people there are starving due to crop failure and many children are unable to go to school because of it,” Soskil told Truthout. “My students wanted to do something to help them. They knew that hydroponics and aquaponics allow food to be produced with less water. The students did their research and using recycled materials, developed a system in which to grow food indoors. They then raised money for an air and water pump to aerate and clean the water used for aquaponic food production, and sent it, along with plans to show the kids in Malawi how to raise fish aquaponically. They identified a problem and came up with a solution. I had not intended to design anything like this, but the students took an active role, saw a problem and formulated a solution.”

Students in Chicago participate in the Global Climate Strike on March 15, 2019.
Students in Chicago participate in the Global Climate Strike on March 15, 2019.

Students Need to Know Change Is Possible

Daniel Morales-Doyle, assistant professor of science education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, teaches graduate students, the majority of whom are interested in interdisciplinary teaching. “We know that climate change impacts everyone, but that not everyone is impacted equally,” he told Truthout. This fact has to inform how teachers approach climate change in the classroom, Morales-Doyle said.

For example, when Chicago’s Little Village Environmental Justice Organization mobilized to shutter the last two coal power plants in the city — a campaign they won in 2012 — it gave teachers a way to illustrate that people can successfully fight giant polluters. “One of the most important things is to teach students that there are, and always have been, people fighting for social justice and sustainability,” Morales-Doyle said. “They have to see that you can engage with, and take part in, movements that are successful. Knowing that can be transformative.”

Recognition that energy from the sun and wind can be harnessed to power schools and other buildings can be similarly affirming.

Models exist. Already 5,489 K-12 schools are solar powered — most of them in Arizona, California and Nevada, with a smattering in New Jersey and Hawaii. Despite hefty start-up costs, advocates argue that over 20 years, the cost savings from switching to solar power will be a boon to cash-starved schools and school districts — and provide clean energy.

Beth Mowry teaches climate change, green engineering and biology to high schoolers at the Brooklyn Collaborative School (BCS) in New York, and says that she starts her climate change class by differentiating between weather and climate. “Hurricane Sandy impacted a lot of BCS students,” Mowry told Truthout. “We went to Red Hook, a Brooklyn neighborhood that was badly flooded, and mapped the elevation as a way to study rising sea levels.” Along with a group called the Red Hook Initiative, the class studied greenhouse gases and subsequently investigated what happens when sea and land ice melts.

Later in the academic year, Mowry says, her students will study the carbon cycle and look at different perspectives on the climate shifts that scientists have already observed. “At BCS, we make sure that students know that change is coming, but we also stress that we can mitigate it. We read the New York City Panel on Climate Change report to see what it says about flooding, sea level rise and heat emergencies. We ask what we can do to prepare. We also look at proposals for the city’s coastline, including building levees and sea walls, dunes and restoring the wetlands. Can these be effective? The students have to evaluate these ideas and write a position paper.”

Mowry admits that she often tries to get her students scared, but just enough that they become active rather than immobilized. She also wants them to assess who will be hit hardest and makes sure to focus on the racial and class dimensions of climate change. Lastly, her curriculum gives students a chance to read about the Green New Deal legislation.

Her green engineering class takes a different tack. Here, students design wind turbines in collaboration with the KidWind Project. Michael Arquin, founder and CEO of KidWind, said that over its 15-year history, the organization has instructed more than 450 teachers about renewable energy during summer trainings held in different parts of the U.S. “Learning about climate change can be super depressing, but if we look at what we can do, teachers can find a way to wrap a lot of subjects around wind and solar,” Arquin told Truthout.

An annual student competition sponsored by KidWind prompts students to find new designs for wind turbines and gives teachers a way to get their students excited about becoming inventors. But it still falls on teachers to self-educate — something that Arsenie finds regrettable. “No one taught me about climate science,” he said. “It falls on us to reach out into the professional development worlds to educate ourselves for whatever age group of students we have. Last year, I made the leap on my own and took a climate science course to really dive into the myriad examples and faux science of climate deniers.” He paid for the class himself.

As for the faux science he mentions, Arsenie reports that each year, he and his Carl Schurz colleagues are bombarded with materials from climate deniers at the Illinois-based Heartland Institute, including DVDs, books, CD-ROMs and information about bringing guest speakers to campus. “Their mailings are a constant reminder that there is an active anti-science movement that is pushing teachers not to teach climate science,” he says.

Along with the Discovery Institute — a politically conservative, Seattle-based think tank dedicated to promoting “intelligent design” and contesting the idea of human-caused climate change — the folks at Heartland are urging teachers to oppose the Next Generation Science Standards that have been adopted by 19 states and Washington, D.C. Written by the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association and American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Standards provide a framework for teaching K-12 science classes that introduce students to Earth science, physical science and space science. The reach is meant to enable students to use the evidence-reliant scientific method when formulating ideas and hypotheses.

In its place, Heartland and Discovery are pushing Congress to pass an Academic Freedom Bill — patterned after legislation enacted in Tennessee seven years ago — to “protect teachers when they promote critical thinking about controversial science issues such as biological evolution, climate change, and human cloning.”

This leaves many teachers shaking their heads. “Climate change is the defining issue of our time,” Brooklyn art teacher Joe Matunis says. “Having schools ignore it will not make it go away, or stop it from wreaking havoc.”

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