Interdisciplinary Teaching on Climate & Calculating Your School’s GHG Emissions

by Megan Arnold and Peter Crownfield
[This post also appears on the Green Schools National Network news blog.]

Climate change is in the news, and we’ve seen a huge marches for science and for climate action. In many schools, though, global warming and climate change have been largely ignored, except for brief discussions in some science classes. And, despite the push for more STEM education, the U.S. government is now downplaying science and has deleted most of its factual information on climate change. The Heartland Institute is sending misleading and incorrect climate-denial propaganda to teachers. Clearly, it has become more important than ever to teach the truth about climate change in school.

Several years ago, Peter was in a local coffee shop meeting with an intern from Lehigh University to plan a climate-action project when six students from a nearby high school sat down at the next table. Later, as they were getting ready to leave, the intern asked what they learned in school about global warming and climate change. All six replied simultaneously: ‘Nothing.’ One of the students then added that students who took Environmental Science probably spent some time on climate change.

Unfortunately, many students learn far too little about global warming in school. When we don’t cover such critical topics thoroughly, many students, like those in the coffee shop, are left to form their opinions based on minimal—and often misleading—news coverage or what they read on social media. This is one of the most important issues of their lives, and they want the truth about the causes and impacts.

Following that conversation with students, the Alliance for Sustainable Communities–Lehigh Valley created an initiative to increase schools’ attention to this issue, including developing materials to help teachers. Since only some students take environmental science courses, we realized that such a critical topic has to involve all students, not just those who are already interested in the environment.

Fortunately, educational leaders are beginning to emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary approaches. Not only are colleges and universities working to integrate sustainability topics throughout the curriculum, the trend is developing in the K-12 arena as well, with articles and books about covering climate change in Social Studies and English Language Arts. That’s a good beginning, but there’s a long way to go.

It’s just common sense that integrating different subjects and approaches makes learning more interesting and enjoyable—and it’s far more effective for students to learn about complex subjects from multiple perspectives. After talking to teachers, we realized that many who teach Social Studies, the arts, Math, and English Language Arts could use a basic foundation in climate science and its impacts to fully bring out the importance and relevance to their subjects.

We enlisted the aid of students at several nearby colleges and universities and consulted with faculty in their education departments. After months of background research, we developed a factual guide to global warming and climate change and a look at current impacts. Titled Interdisciplinary Teaching on Climate & Sustainability, it features ideas for all subject areas—and includes an extensive list of resources and tools to expand the inquiry.

This is not a curriculum or lesson plans that might require a formal approval process—it’s a compilation of guidance, resources, and ideas that can help meet existing goals for student learning and skill development. It provides a variety of entry points to help teachers integrate climate and sustainability issues in the classroom, with a focus on student inquiry.

Another great feature of the guide is the free School GHG [greenhouse gas] Calculator, which allows students and teachers to accurately calculate a school’s emissions and makes all conversion factors, calculations, and formulas visible to students. This makes it an excellent interactive tool—and a fun project that provides data for action.

The project website [teach-climate.net] covers the basics of climate change and includes ideas for 18 individual subject areas, plus extensive links to resources for teachers and students at all grade levels (available online or in a downloadable PDF) plus instructions for obtaining the latest version of the School GHG Calculator. (All resources are offered to teachers and schools without charge.)

Teaching the truth is an important way to resist current efforts to deny scientific knowledge and avoid important subjects. We owe it to students and to future generations.

As poet Drew Dellinger put it:

my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the Planet was plundered?
what did you do when the Earth was unravelling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?….
what did you do
once
you
knew?

—Excerpt from Drew Dellinger’s ‘What Did You Do Once You Knew?

Note: This summer, Peter and Megan will be working with a group of students to produce a new guide to encourage and facilitate teaching about the food system and its climate and health impacts.

Megan Arnold is a student at DeSales University, majoring in biology. “Until I came to DeSales,” she notes, “most of what I learned about sustainable living was from my father, who was an avid recycler and lover of nature.” She credits one of her biology professors, who shares a similar enthusiasm, with sparking an interest that became “my passion and future career choice.” When she heard about this project, she remembered how little attention was given to this in her years at school and decided to help.

Peter Crownfield serves as internship coordinator for the Alliance for Sustainable Communities–Lehigh Valley, working with college and university students from the area on a variety of sustainability-related projects for academic credit. He also coordinates the Alliance’s initiatives on Teaching Climate & Sustainability and several other projects. Now officially retired, he’s a graduate of Dartmouth College who has worked as an educator, administrator, and publisher and has managed and taught systems design and integration at several institutions.

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