Teaching Students About Climate Change

By Garth Sundem, author of Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Character: Choices That Matter Around the World

Teaching Students About Climate ChangeSex. Drugs. Evolution. Cancer science. Climate change.

Climate change is one of those things: You just know that no matter how you teach it, you’re going to end up talking to parents. No matter how you slice it, this is less than awesome. But that doesn’t change the fact that you’ve been tasked with wading into the landscape of preconceived notions and intractable beliefs to help your students identify some version of the “truth” . . . whatever that may mean. Gird your loins, educator! It’s time to teach climate change.

And it’s funny: Just as Free Spirit Publishing reached out to me about writing this post on teaching climate change, my wife, a school psychologist, was teaching fifth graders about puberty at Mackintosh Academy, a gifted school in Boulder, Colorado. And, for my day job as a science writer for the University of Colorado Cancer Center, I had been chatting with cancer researchers about the challenge of working with patients who disbelieve Western medicine.

For example, yesterday I talked with Benjamin Brewer, Psy.D., director of Clinical Psychology Services for the Blood Cancer and Bone Marrow Transplant Program at the CU School of Medicine. It’s easy for most of us to think that we have a tough job . . . until we compare it to his.

“I’m kind of the guy that people on my team come find when a patient has a different worldview about medicine,” Brewer said diplomatically. (Don’t worry—this does come back around to teaching climate change!)

Brewer says a patient’s challenging beliefs tend to start with fear (“They can’t confront the authenticity that they have to go through this procedure,” he says) and lead to what he calls “Googling for beliefs”—searching for support for what they already believe.

Here’s an experiment you can try at home: Go to Google and type in the words “chemotherapy” and “poison.” Recently, the top result was an article titled “The Truth About Chemotherapy—Toxic Poison or Cancer Cure?” It had been viewed 40,000 times and shared on Facebook 12,000 times. And the takeaway was pretty clear. According to the article: “The truth is that chemo is toxic, carcinogenic (causes cancer), destroys erythrocytes (red blood cells), devastates the immune system, and destroys vital organs.”

In fact, of the first ten Google results, only one, from Cancer Research UK, could be seen as even remotely impartial. Other results included goodies like “Chemo is toxic poison. I used natural therapy to beat cancer” and “Chemo kills—the facts about chemotherapy and real cancer cures.”

“When you Google ‘chemotherapy is bad’ you end up on the chemotherapy is bad channel,” Brewer says. In other words, people who explore their beliefs online find support for their beliefs.

How does a patient know to believe a doctor instead of some guru on Tumblr? Brewer has thoughts on that, too: “I can tell them how accomplished a doctor is in his field, that he’s discovered cancer-causing molecules . . . and it’s surprising how completely ineffective that argument is.”

Instead, Brewer says, it’s “like a Chinese finger trap—you kind of go back a little bit to get out of it. If you keep pressing from the scientific view, people can shut down and go the other way quickly.”

The strategy Brewer uses is to “engage their curiosity.” In short, his tip borne of hundreds of hours of experience in literal life-and-death situations is that rather than teaching, he tries to meet patients where they are to explore their beliefs together. At the end of the day, he respects patients’ decisions and defends their decisions to the rest of his team as long as patients have made those decisions with clear eyes; you can choose to treat cancer with marijuana as long as you understand that all the real evidence says this is an exceptionally bad idea.

In this post about teaching climate change, the takeaway is that you can’t teach climate change. You have to explore climate change. The first rule of Fight Club is similar, but it turns out that you can at least talk about climate change . . . in some districts.

If you want to explore climate change with your students, let’s move from moderately relevant theory to practice. Check out this awesome lesson by my friend Kristi, Ph.D., who dictated the following to me:

“Take a small [reusable food container], about twelve inches by eight inches. Put in a block of sand or soil. Take warm water and put it in to represent a lake. Put plastic wrap on the top. Over the landform, you add an icepack, and you can watch the water cycle. That’s your control. Then you can do things like using one of those infrared thermometers to take the temperature of the lake or the temperature of the ice pack. Essentially, with climate change, you increase the temperature of the lake, and you watch the increased water cycle and the overall effect. The condensation happens quickly; the ice will melt. It’s amazing, when you make minor adjustments to the lake temperature, how big of an impact it makes on the water cycle in general in this closed ecosystem. Or you can also do a single ice cube and do a cold lake, a medium lake, and a hot lake. Everything is ramping up. You can watch. If you want to go totally crazy, you can plant simple grasses in the soil in your ecosystem—see if there’s an effect of having vegetation.”

I often have little idea what Kristi is saying. This can be not a good thing. On the other hand, it leaves room for interpretation and personalization of instructions. For example, what I hear is, “You should eat all of the Reese’s Easter eggs.”

Maybe I’m hearing what I am predisposed to hear. And that is the danger for your students. If you teach, they may hear only what they want to hear. But if you engage with them in the collaborative process of exploration, you may both discover new points of view. Let the objectivity of your experiments be the “truth.” And if these experiments result in the amalgam of peanut butter and chocolate, please consider sending them to me via Free Spirit Publishing.

Author Garth SundemGarth Sundem is a TED-Ed speaker and former contributor to the Science Channel. He blogs at GeekDad and PsychologyToday.com. He has been published in Scientific American, Huffington Post Science, Fast Company, Men’s Health, Esquire, The New York Times, Congressional Quarterly, and Publishers Weekly. Garth grew up on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and currently lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife, two kids, and a pack of Labradors.

Free Spirit books by Garth Sundem:

Real Kids, Real Stories, Real ChangeReal Kids, Real Stories, Real Character


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