Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Science Education for a Melting Planet

An article in the October 6, 2012 issue of ScienceNews shares some distressing statistics about the health of our planet. Satellite data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado indicates a new record for ice melt in the Arctic Sea. The previous record was set in 2007. The current ice cover is 4.10 million kilometers—70,000 square kilometers smaller than reported in 2007.

The amount of Arctic ice has been declining at about 12 percent, or 60,000 square miles, each decade since 1960. As the area covered by ice grows smaller, the remaining ice grows thinner, putting the entire ice mass at risk of melting by 2040. Walt Meier, an NSIDC scientist, told ScienceNews “The Arctic is becoming like a fighter with a glass jaw.”

In effect, the ice mass serves as the planet’s cooling system. As it shrinks, the liquid sea absorbs more light (heat energy). This warming trend affects wildlife habitats and weather patterns. Our growing human population and the parallel demand for energy ensures that this troubling trend will continue.

As educators, what are we to do with such grim announcements? How do we encourage students to take on the present and future scientific challenges that are presented by our warming planet? How do we make sure that our own knowledge is keeping pace with new developments and is appropriately integrated into our work with students?

Resources from The Habitable Planet, the award-winning environmental science course produced by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, can help you and your students understand and observe the environmental impact of the Arctic ice melt. For example, unit 12, section 7, Observed Impacts of Climate Change, provides a graphic comparison of Arctic Sea ice coverage in 1979 and 2003. The supporting text outlines scientifically observed and recorded ecosystem changes such as shifts in animal, bird, and insect ranges.

Section 8, Other Potential Near-Term Impacts, reviews scientific projections of climate change based on the increased rate of Arctic ice melt and the resulting increase in global surface temperatures. Students can practice making their own scientific projections by using a simulator, Carbon Lab, similar to those used to inform the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

What do educators do when modern science brings us bad news? We teach our hearts out.