How Some Teachers In Alaska Are Tackling The Subject Of Climate Change

Apr 22, 2019
Originally published on April 22, 2019 6:28 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now on this Earth Day, we're going to hear from teachers in Alaska where temperatures are warming at a rate twice as fast as the global average. A new national NPR/Ipsos poll found teachers are more likely than the general population to believe that the world's climate is changing, yet only 42% actually teach or talk about climate change in their classrooms. Some teachers in Alaska are finding innovative ways of getting at that subject. Elizabeth Jenkins from Alaska's Energy Desk reports.

ELIZABETH JENKINS, BYLINE: Chohla Moll's science classroom in Sitka has an ocean view. And today, the proximity to seawater will come in handy.

(SOUNDBITE OF STUDENTS BLOWING BUBBLES)

JENKINS: Students at Mt. Edgecumbe High School take turns blowing through straws into a glass full of seawater, adding carbon dioxide with their breath. The pH indicator shows the water becoming increasingly acidic, a process known as ocean acidification. Moll explains it's one of the consequences of burning fossil fuels. It's all part of a lesson on climate change. Not all teachers feel comfortable talking about how humans are contributing to the problem, but Moll thinks it's fairly simple.

CHOHLA MOLL: So when we come into science, we're not talking about things we believe in. We're talking about things that we have evidence to back up.

JENKINS: According to a new NPR/Ipsos poll nearly 9 in 10 teachers think climate change should be taught in schools. But 55% said they don't currently teach or talk about it in their classrooms. And about a third of teachers worry about parent complaints when it comes to talking about climate change.

The teachers who don't currently teach it gave several reasons why. Most said climate change is outside their subject area. Seventeen percent said they didn't know enough about climate change to teach it. And 17% also said they don't have the right materials. Math teacher Emma Carr falls into that last camp. She'd like to teach about climate change, but...

EMMA CARR: A lot of textbooks - they don't do a great job of connecting the math that we're learning to the real world. And so anytime that I want to do that, I have to create those lessons myself.

JENKINS: Carr teaches in Unalaska, a fishing community that's experiencing ocean warming. She's heard her students talk about that warming, and she thinks they should learn to interpret climate change data in school so they can understand the facts.

CARR: Like, kids will really need to be able to, like, look at a graph or a chart or whatever and be able to analyze it for themselves.

JENKINS: In Anchorage, science teacher Bryan Smith acknowledges climate change is a sensitive subject, especially in a resource-rich state like Alaska. Some of his students have parents who are employed by the oil and gas industry.

BRYAN SMITH: I've got this Upton Sinclair quote above my door. It's difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

JENKINS: Smith does teach climate change, and he's received pushback from at least one of the teens in his class.

SMITH: Some people you won't be able to reach.

JENKINS: So there are social complexities to teaching climate change in an oil state. But there's another limitation almost every teacher will understand - not having enough time. Teachers are busy and often overworked. When NPR and Ipsos asked them to rank which subjects their schools should invest more in, climate change fell near the bottom of the list behind basic literacy and STEM, two subject areas that are far more likely to appear on standardized tests.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Jenkins in Juneau.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBOTAKI'S "MOONSIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.