Contributed by Mark McCaffrey
There may be no one ideal interdisciplinary and integrating theme for propelling STEM education into the 21st century, but linking energy, climate, and related global change topics and teaching them throughout the STEM curriculum—and beyond, into social studies, civics, arts, and humanities—can take full advantage of the new education standards and truly prepare young people for making informed decisions in the years and decades ahead.
Most Americans do believe the climate is changing, most feel that human activities are at least partially responsible, few have learned much about the topic in school, but many would like to learn more. Certainly, the science community and the over 190 nations of the world, including the United States, that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change twenty years ago, take climate change caused by human activities as a serious subject that must be addressed. But for a variety of reasons—and unlike many other nations that include climate change in their national curriculum—the causes, effects, risks, and possible responses to climate change are often not covered, or are skimmed over.
Climate change caused by human activities that alter the Earth’s energy dynamic has been for too long treated as an afterthought or a controversy to be avoided or debated in classrooms. To understand the forces and factors that have put us on a course for not simply a warmer world but one that will be considerably hotter if current trends are not countered, it is vital that we approach STEM education relating to these issues in a methodical, yes, scientific manner.
Which is exactly what the new standards are designed to do. Start with simple, essential concepts, and then build on that foundation over the grade levels. The Common Core State Standards for language arts, for example, encourage science and technology literacy, and the mathematics standards are designed to encourage problem-solving skills, recognition of patterns, and reasoning that complement and are in fact vital for mastering science, technology, and engineering.
Rather than teaching narrowing about climate change, the new standards can be used to weave climate, energy, and related global change topics—ideal interdisciplinary and integrating themes for our times—throughout the curriculum. They link together all the sciences—physical, life, earth and space together with mathematics, learning arts, engineering and technology. Many contemporary issues studied in other courses relate directly or indirectly to these vital topics, and these related, overlapping themes help set the context for understanding and addressing climate change.
The bottom line: students need to be able to understand the scale and scope of the massive challenges, including climate change, that they will be facing, and we have the responsibility and, as educators, the opportunity, to provide them with the innovative skills and insights they will need to survive and thrive in the decades ahead.
While very few of the performance expectations of the Next Generation Science Standards relate directly to climate change caused by human activities, the majority of them relate in one way or another with the broader subjects of energy, climate, ecosystems, human impacts on the planet, and solutions to minimize those impacts.
The Next Generation Science Standards begin in the primary grades with observations about the Sun and how its energy relates to changes through the day and over different times of year, influencing organisms and society. Seasonal changes and climate enter into the curriculum in third grade, energy in our everyday lives in fourth grade, and energy in food webs and ecosystems is emphasized in fifth grade. Throughout the primary grades, problem solving through technological tools and engineering practices provides learners with skills that will serve them well, helping set the stage for deeper understanding and analysis of energy, climate and global change from human impacts in middle and high school.
Obviously, such a fundamental change will be massively challenging, but it can be achieved one step at a time, one conversation at a time, building momentum, leveraging and expanding programs and strategies that transform schools into living laboratories and learning into innovative, inspiring experience, all the while keeping our eyes on the prize: a science-savvy, STEM-literate generation that has the knowledge and know-how to make informed climate and energy decisions in their lives and careers.
Currently serving as Programs and Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), Mark S. McCaffrey helped spearhead the NCSE Climate Change Education initiative and convene the Climate and Energy Literacy Summit. He served as Associate Scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado at Boulder from 2001 to 2011. He holds a graduate degree in education from the University of Northern Colorado where he focused on water as an interdisciplinary and integrating theme for teaching. McCaffrey helped establish an education affiliate group with the National Climate Assessment Network, which is a public private partnership organized under the auspices of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. He is the author of Climate Smart & Energy Wise.