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Ways to teach about climate change (Part II of II)

HP_surface air increase(See Part I: Why should schools teach about climate change? here.) Teaching about climate change can be daunting: the science is complex, multi-disciplinary, and evolving quickly. But many key ideas about how Earth’s climate system works can be used to illustrate basic ideas in biology, chemistry, and physics.

For example, when biology students study how organisms adapt to their environments, teachers can introduce the idea that climate change is shifting many species’ ranges and altering the timing of seasonal events, such as the first flowering of plants in spring. When students study the carbon cycle in chemistry or earth science, teachers can point out that human activities are adding carbon to the atmosphere, and discuss how Earth’s atmosphere and oceans act as “sinks” for carbon.

What should students know about climate science? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), America’s weather and climate agency, suggests that a climate-literate person:

  • Understands the essential principles of Earth’s climate system,
  • Knows how to assess scientifically credible information about climate,
  • Communicates about climate and climate change in a meaningful way, and
  • Is able to make informed and responsible decisions with regard to actions that may affect climate.

NOAA’s Climate.gov library breaks climate science literacy down into key principles – how energy flows from the sun to Earth, the interactions among Earth’s systems that regulate climate, factors that make climate variable, and the impacts of human actions. The site also offers visuals, videos, experiments demonstrating key concepts, and interactive tools.

Many climate change concepts can be explored through projects, which give students opportunities to apply ideas – and often, to see the impacts of their personal choices. Clarkson University worked with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to develop ten project-based climate modules on topics ranging from the greenhouse effect to the climate impact of a “dream vacation.” Lessons target grades 6-8 but can be adapted for other levels.

School groups can also join ongoing citizen science projects across the United States, many of which focus on climate-related events. Three national examples:

  • Journey North, from Annenberg Learner, is a free program that uses observations from students and citizen scientists to track wildlife migration and seasonal change. Teachers can use Journey North to help students learn which indicators of changing seasons are unaffected by climate change (such as the length of daylight at a given time of year) and which are impacted (such as the first arrival of migratory birds in spring).
  • Project Budburst, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, tracks how plant species are responding to local, regional, and national climate changes. Participants submit ongoing or one-time reports on specific plants. The project offers classroom resources for grades K-12.
  • Project FeederWatch, run by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, is a project that surveys bird populations in back yards, parks, and nature centers across North America from November through April. Researchers use the data to track changes in bird species’ winter abundance and distribution.

The Habitable Planet series from Annenberg Learner also provides tools to teach about climate change. The series, presented in videos and an online textbook, explains fundamental environmental science concepts that support an understanding of climate change. Key units include “Atmosphere,” which describes Earth’s energy balance and the role of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; “Oceans,” which shows the important role that oceans play in absorbing carbon; and “Energy Challenges,” which explains how fossil fuels were created and describes the pros and cons of these and other energy sources. “Earth’s Changing Climate” ties these issues together to show how greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are altering Earth’s energy balance. (Note: for the most current international assessment of climate change science and impacts, see post here from October 30.)

Why should schools teach about climate change? (Part I of II)

EarthAs new findings about global climate change make news, some science teachers are caught between a rock and a hard place. Hundreds of scientists who contributed to the most recent international assessment of climate change science say they are 95 percent certain that human activities are the cause of global warming in recent decades. That’s the same level of confidence experts have that smoking cigarettes causes cancer.

But over the past five years, more than a dozen bills have been introduced at the state level that would allow teachers to present material challenging that scientific consensus. Recent reports* have spotlighted a textbook review panel in Texas, which includes several members who have questioned evolution and climate change science, and is scheduled to vote this month on an approved list of biology textbooks. (Publishers have not altered texts in response to comments from these reviewers.)

The Next Generation Science Standards offer a counterpoint. The standards recommend introducing students to global climate change in middle school as students learn about weather and climate. High school students are expected to learn about using models to understand Earth’s climate system, and to make evidence-based forecasts of the current rate of global climate change and associated impacts.

The high school standards also link global climate change to human sustainability. Students who understand these concepts should be able to explain how human activities are affecting relationships among Earth systems, such as the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere, and to think critically about solutions that could reduce human impacts on natural systems.

Twenty-six states helped develop the standards, and eight states have already adopted them: California, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware, and Washington. Kentucky’s Gov. Steve Beshear overruled a legislative subcommittee that voted against adopting the standards, which had already been endorsed by the state Department of Education and Board of Education. “My job . . . is to make sure our children are college and career ready when they leave high school. Part of getting them college and career ready is to make sure they study all the different scientific theories [that] are out there that everybody else in the world will be studying,” Beshear said.

By emphasizing critical thinking and investigation, the Next Generation standards are designed to help students understand how scientists develop and test ideas, and to think across disciplines. Climate change is a topic that is well suited to this approach. It draws on multiple fields of science: for example, we need some basic physics to understand atmospheric circulation, while ocean acidification is a chemical process. And scientific understanding of climate science and climate change impacts is evolving in real time today, as researchers test theories and refine models that help us understand past climate shifts and predict what may happen in coming decades.

*Post update: On November 22, 2013, the New York Times published a new piece on the ongoing controversial textbook process in Texas. See the article here.

(Stay tuned next Wednesday, November 20, for Part II: Ways to teach about climate change.)

World population: more people, more urban (Part II)

(Part II of II updates to The Habitable Planet)

HP_ChinaposterSeven billion and counting

Global population growth is a central issue in environmental studies. More people on Earth means more demand for food, water and other natural resources. Extracting and using those resources creates air and water pollution and generates waste.

Unit 5 of The Habitable Planet, “Human Population Dynamics,” describes patterns of population growth and the relationship between population and environmental impacts. When The Habitable Planet was released in 2007, world population totaled roughly 6.7 billion, and the United Nations projected that it would be just over 9 billion by 2050. Since that time, the world has reached several new milestones.

Late in 2011 world population reached 7 billion, just twelve years after it had topped the 6 billion mark. The U.N.’s latest estimates, released in mid-2013, project that global population will exceed 8 billion by 2025, and that in 2050 it could total up to 9.6 billion. These numbers are higher than earlier estimates, mostly because the U.N. used new methods to estimate current fertility rates in a group of African countries where fertility remains high (Angola, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Niger, and Nigeria).

As countries modernize, life expectancies improve, and women gain access to contraception and education, fertility rates typically decline in a pattern known as the demographic transition, which is described in section five, unit five of The Habitable Planet. But this shift is not automatic, and U.N. officials warned that “additional substantial efforts” may be needed to help make it happen in countries where fertility is still high.

Bright lights, big cities

Another population trend with major environmental impacts is global urbanization. In 2007 the share of world population living in cities topped 50 percent for the first time in history, and people continue to move from total to urban areas. According to current U.N. estimates, by 2050 more than two-third of the world’s population will live in cities. Most of this movement will take place in the developing world (industrialized countries have already largely urbanized). By 2025 most of the world’s megacities (urban areas with at least 10 million residents) will be in developing countries. Cities on track to join this club include Lagos, Nigeria; Chennai, India, and Shenzen, China.

Students may have trouble understanding why so many people in developing countries move from rural areas to cities, where they often end up living in slums with contaminated air and water and working in unsafe conditions. The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in a suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh earlier this year, which killed more than 1,100 garment workers, spotlighted the difficulty that millions of the world’s poor face as they try to find a toehold in fast-growing cities.

But in spite of conditions like these, demographers and urban scholars contend that cities offer much better economic opportunities than rural areas. Many students may have seen the 2008 Academy award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, which follows its fictional hero, Jamal Malik, through his childhood and teenage years in Mumbai, India. Jamal is orphaned, leaves home and faces horrifying exploitation, but finds new opportunities after every escape. Setting aside the only-in-a-movie resolution (Jamal wins wealth and fame on a game show and is reunited with the love of his life), students can discuss why Jamal returns to Mumbai and what his life might have been like if he had tried to make a living as a farmer instead. They also can consider how improvements like affordable housing, clean water supplies, and better public transit would improve conditions for people in megacities like Mumbai and give them more opportunity to create stable, healthy lives.

Questions for discussion:

  • What are the most significant environmental impacts of an average citizen’s lifestyle in one of the African countries where population growth rates remain high? How do they compare with the impacts of an average citizen in the United States? What does this comparison tell you about the relationship between population and the environment?
  • UN-Habitat, a United Nations agency, defines slums as areas that lack at least one of these features:
    • Durable housing
    • Adequate living space (no more than three people sharing a room)
    • Access to clean drinking water
    • Access to improved sanitation (toilets or latrines that separate human waste from contact with water sources)
    • Secure property rights (e.g., rights and legal protection for tenants)

    Which of these resources do you think are most important? What other attributes might also distinguish slums from adequate living places?

Climate change: A new global report finds clear human influence (Part I)

(Part I of II updates to The Habitable Planet)

© Greenpeace/Beltra. Polar bears hunt their prey from Arctic sea ice, so climate change threatens their survival.

© Greenpeace/Beltra.
Polar bears hunt their prey from Arctic sea ice, so climate change threatens their survival.

New warming milestones

Late last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first volume of its latest report on the state of Earth’s climate. The IPCC, an international scientific body, was created by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization in 1988 to advise national governments about climate science and potential impacts from global warming.

The new report finds that Earth’s climate is unequivocally warming, and that it is extremely likely that human activities have been the “dominant cause” of observed warming since the mid-20th century.[1] The IPCC defines “extremely likely” as equivalent to 95 percent certainty. Its last assessment in 2007 called it 90 percent likely that humans had caused observed climate change in recent decades.

As Unit 12 of The Habitable Planet, “Earth’s Changing Climate,” illustrates, Earth is constantly receiving energy from the sun in the form of visible light and radiating some of that energy back into space as heat. Human activities are increasing the concentrations of greenhouse gases, or GHGs (substances that absorb heat) in Earth’s atmosphere, warming the planet’s surface. Since The Habitable Planet was released in 2007, world GHG concentrations have continued to rise, and climate change impacts have become more severe.

One widely-reported milestone occurred in the spring of 2013, when the average concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in Earth’s atmosphere reached 400 parts per million (ppm). [2] Carbon dioxide is the main driver of human-induced climate change, and is generated mainly from burning fossil fuels. In the pre-industrial era, atmospheric CO2 concentrations averaged about 280 ppm. In 2005, when the IPCC published its fourth global climate assessment report, they had reached 379 ppm. According to atmospheric scientists, concentrations of 400 ppm probably last occurred several million years ago, when the planet was far warmer than today.[3]

In its new assessment report, the IPCC estimates that if atmospheric concentrations of CO2 reach double the pre-industrial level (a marker the world is on track to reach by mid-century at current rates), global average temperatures would increase by 2.7 to 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit.[4] For comparison, the world warmed by about 1.4 degrees between 1880 and 2012.[5] Some of the most likely impacts of warming include:

  • More intense and frequent extreme precipitation events (rain and snow) in mid-latitudes and tropical regions;
  • Continued melting and thinning of Arctic sea ice and decreasing spring snow cover in the Northern hemisphere; and
  • Faster sea level rise than the changes that have already been observed in recent decades as ice sheets melt and oceans warm, totaling 21 to 38 inches by 2100 if emissions remain high.

Reaching scientific judgments

IPCC reports represent consensus views of hundreds of scientists who review current findings from many disciplines. Working Group I, which produced this volume, focuses on the state of climate science and draws from fields including meteorology, oceanography and ecology. In total, 209 lead authors, 50 review editors from 39 countries contributed to this volume, which cites some 9,200 scientific publications. Reports from Working Group II (on climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability) and Working Group III (on mitigation, or actions to slow climate change) are scheduled to appear in 2014.

IPCC reports are data-heavy and can be challenging to sift through because they consider what will happen under a range of different emissions scenarios. But students can learn about climate change just from seeing how the IPCC approaches its task. Measuring climate change is a scientific challenge, but governments also need to know how impacts such as rising sea levels will affect their countries, and how much difference actions such as shifting away from fossil fuel will make over a given time period. The IPCC’s summary of areas covered by its working groups shows how many specialties have something to contribute to this effort.

The IPCC’s process also illustrates how scientists come to judgments about large-scale problems. Why does the panel review thousands of individual studies to make estimates for these reports? Why does it use multiple scenarios with high, medium and low GHG emissions to project how climate change may progress? Why do the authors assign values such as “virtually certain” and “very likely” to their estimates, as well as numerical probabilities? A look at the IPCC can show students that finding solutions to complex questions like climate change is a slow, iterative process – but one that the world can’t afford to ignore.

Questions for discussion:

  • Which climate change impacts are likely to have major effects where you live? (The IPCC report describes many projected impacts, including sea level rise, changes in amounts and timing of rain and snowfall, and decreasing snowpack in cold regions.)
  • The United States has experienced a number of extreme weather events in the past several years, including Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012, record-scale flooding in Colorado’s Front Range earlier this fall, and a multi-year drought across much of Texas. Does evidence suggest that climate change may have contributed to these events? How could climate change amplify a hurricane, rainstorm or drought?

(Look for Part II, “World population: more people, more urban,” on Wednesday, November 6.)

National Environmental Education Week (April 14-20)

HabPlanet_earthDiscuss current and future environmental problems, including possible solutions, with your students. The following resources provide ideas for science, social studies, and literature classrooms:

 

 

 

  1. Hear thought-provoking views and research findings from experts in the field, including entomologist E.O. Wilson in The Habitable Planet, unit 13 video, “Looking Forward: Our Global Experiment.”
  2. Two interactives in The Habitable Planet allow you and your students to manage an energy crisis. The Carbon Lab explores how human influence on carbon output affects the future health of the Earth’s atmosphere.  In the Energy Lab interactive, try developing a portfolio of energy resources that cuts back on CO2 and considers the pros and cons of multiple sources of energy.
  3. Gage Reeves asks his 5th graders to relate their reading about global warming and climate change to events and products in their community in Teaching Reading 3-5 Workshop, classroom program 13, “Reading Across the Curriculum.”
  4. Consider the possible conflicts that arise when living in a future society affected by significant global warming and other challenges by reading “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia E. Butler.  The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature, session 7, “Critical Pedagogy,” includes an audio clip of the author and a synopsis of the story.
  5. Learn about where oil comes from, how it is extracted and used for energy, and the effects of using oil as an energy source on the environment in Earth Revealed, program 26, “Living With Earth, Part II.”
  6. Explore environmental mysteries like the causes of ice ages and consider how life shapes the earth in Planet Earth, program 3, “The Climate Puzzle,” and program 7, “Fate of the Earth.”
  7. Economic stories show how pollution is a “negative externality” that can have serious consequences for economic efficiency in Economics U$A, unit 8, “Pollution and the Environment.”
  8. The World of Chemistry, program 17, “The Precious Envelope,” explains ozone depletion and the greenhouse effect on the earth’s atmosphere.


Happy Valentine’s Day from Journey North: Owl Love

Barred Owl photo by Stephen J. Lang courtesy of Wisconsin Society for Ornithology

Barred Owl photo by Stephen J. Lang courtesy of Wisconsin Society for Ornithology

Whoooo’s Finding Romance? (from Journey North on Learner.org)

The calendar says it’s winter, but some birds have a different opinion. Many owls are in the middle of their spring courtship, and some are already sitting on eggs! Mother owls start to incubate their eggs the moment they lay them because, if an egg were to freeze, the developing chick inside would not survive. The mother spends all of her time sitting tight. Father owls normally do the hunting for both of them during this critical time.

Why do owls start nesting so early? It’s hard to be certain, but the timing does mean baby owls will be learning to hunt when inexperienced young mammals are in abundant supply and easy prey.

For more on owls:

  • See the owl facts page on Journey North. For example, find out how owls’ crooked ears help them calculate the exact distance to their prey.
  • Find a literature link to Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon.
  • Practice your owl calls using these recordings.

Finally, join Journey North this spring as we track how seasonal changes in sunlight affect the entire web of life. What signs of change are you seeing in February? Show your love for our Earth and report your observations of owls, butterflies, and plant activity on the Report Your Sightings page of the Journey North Web site.

Invite Your Students to the Garden

Students Gardening (St. Mary's Hall, San Antonio, TX), image by Phyllis Swinney

Students Gardening (St. Mary’s Hall, San Antonio, TX), image by Phyllis Swinney

It’s February, it’s cold in many parts of the U.S., and it’s time to talk about gardening.

Ask an avid gardener like me about my devotion to the hobby and you’ll get an enthusiastic variety of responses likely along these lines:

  • Finding solutions to garden problems is challenging and satisfying.
  • There is joy in nurturing living things.
  • It’s great exercise.
  • Being a productive contributor to the health of the environment benefits everyone.

Many schools are acknowledging that these outcomes are as valid in the schoolyard as they are in the backyard. In fact, a study conducted by the Royal Horticultural Society on the benefits of its Campaign for School Gardening found that school gardening “boosts child development, teaches life skills and makes kids healthier and happier.” Here are some specific findings from the report:

 

  • Gardening helped use up surplus energy in active kids.
  • The process of growing something from seed to fruit helps teach children responsibility and managing a living organism. Some students learned valuable math skills as they sold their produce to the town for a profit.
  • Getting in touch with the dirt and bugs helped some young students overcome their fears.
  • An English teacher found her students’ creativity in poetry expanded after working in the garden.

In addition, gardening and environmental studies authentically connect to subjects across the curriculum. Science students can conduct soil tests and use monarch migration data collected by observing butterfly activity in gardens to look at climate change patterns. Language Arts students can write poetry about the butterflies and their long journey or exchange gardening logs with students in other parts of the country. Spanish students can write to penpals in Mexico about the migration. School gardening fosters collaboration, encourages problem-solving, and produces successes that all students share. And, even though it’s February, you and your students may start right now.

Monarchs Wintering in Mexico, image by Elizabeth Howard

Monarchs Wintering in Mexico, image by Elizabeth Howard

In February, your students can join students and scientists across North America in learning about the monarch butterflies that are currently living deep in central Mexico. Stunning images of the monarchs in this habitat divert cabin fever and inspire creativity. See the Journey North Web site for additional photos, lesson plans, and monarch migration tracking resources. Students can go outside to monitor the schoolyard for an existing monarch-friendly habitat and make predictions about what butterfly activity they are likely to observe when the migration reaches your region. If there currently is no garden in your schoolyard, start planning spring activities with your students to create a welcoming habitat for the butterflies that will begin making their journey north in March. MonarchWatch.org also provides helpful tips for planting and growing the milkweed that is so vital to the monarchs’ reproductive cycle.

While planning your garden now, save space for the tulip bulbs in the fall. In this Journey North international science experiment, track the greening of spring in the Northern Hemisphere through ‘Red Emperor’ tulip test gardens. Students plant tulip bulbs in the fall. When the plants emerge and bloom, children announce that spring has arrived in their part of the world. The relationship between geography and climate, and the greening of spring is revealed, one garden at a time. Students making observations in their own schoolyards, and tracking the greening of spring across the Northern Hemisphere begin to see how season-driven weather and climatic factors influence plant growth.

Encourage your students to join us gardeners across the country as we grow in our knowledge of the environment and make contributions to the health of the planet.