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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.)

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.)

Reading Rocks to Meet New Science Standard (4th Grade)

earth_space_2_david

4th grader David explains the layers of a rock.

This summer educational resource publishers, providers of curriculum and assessment management systems and, of course teachers, are scrambling to unpack, understand, and integrate the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in preparation for the coming school year. Are you ready?

The NGSS are an outgrowth of the Framework for K-12 Science Education that envisions 21st century science education in light of new science knowledge, technological advances, the need for in-depth scientific literacy and for high school graduates who are prepared to pursue scientific careers.

Grade-level standards are developed around Disciplinary Core Ideas for each area of scientific study. For example, within Earth Systems Science (ESS) is this Core Idea: ESS1.C: The History of Planet Earth- Local, regional, and global patterns of rock formations reveal changes over time due to earth forces, such as earthquakes. The presence and location of certain fossil types indicate the order in which rock layers were formed.

If you are a 4th grade teacher, your students are expected to be able to do the following by the end of the year: 4-ESS1-1. Identify evidence from patterns in rock formations and fossils in rock layers for changes in a landscape over time to support an explanation for changes in a landscape over time.

Gulp.

Before you mount a search for your college geology textbook, give yourself an hour with Earth and Space Science, session 2, “Every Rock Tells a Story.” As you watch the video, join Dr. Carol de Wet to look at rock pinnacles in southern Pennsylvania. Observe characteristics that tell the story of how the rocks were formed and what they have to say about the history of the earth.  In the process, learn about the myriad concepts that are packed into one little two-sentence standard.

In addition, observe students doing some rigorous thinking about how rocks are formed and how fossils are created. One of the best aspects of these segments is the way they illustrate how students use prior knowledge, and sometimes misconceptions, to formulate theories. A recent study conducted by researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics revealed that teachers who are aware of students’ misconceptions about scientific concepts have students who perform better on measures of success. A misconception revealed creates a highly teachable moment. The children’s ideas pointed out in session 2 will inspire ideas to help your students read the rocks around them and to be ready for the next step: ESS2.B: Plate Tectonics and Large-Scale System Interactions

Enhancing your scientific understanding in areas that are, um, a little rocky for you, is a sound investment in student success. Carbon into diamonds. Go for it!

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.