It’s Never Too Early to Learn About Climate Change

August 5, 2019

By Ed Brennen

The consequences of global climate change – devastating hurricanes and wildfires, melting ice caps and flooded cities, famine and social upheaval – are scary enough for adults.

So how do teachers talk about climate change with elementary, middle school and high school students without giving them nightmares?

Lori Weeden, an associate teaching professor of environmental, earth and atmospheric sciences (EEAS), has addressed that question and others in a 10-hour professional development workshop that she created for K-12 teachers.

“Teachers are the most important influence on the future of climate change action,” says Weeden, who developed the workshop – free for teachers of all disciplines – in 2018 thanks to a $6,000 grant from the university’s Sustainability Encouragement & Enrichment Development (S.E.E.D.) Fund. “We need to help teachers educate students about climate change, instead of kids maybe getting their information off the internet.”

This summer’s second annual workshop, hosted by the university’s Climate Change Initiative (CCI) in conjunction with the National Association of Geoscience Teachers and the College of Education, once again drew a capacity crowd of 24 local teachers. Weeden estimates that those teachers reach around 1,500 students each year.

Assoc. Teaching Prof. Lori Weeden shows a publication that a conservative think tank mailed to teachers nationwide promoting climate change skepticism – a motivation for starting the workshop.
Photo by Ed Brennen

Leigh Cameron, an environmental educator for the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust who leads an outreach program for K-6 students at a dozen Lowell public schools, was a return attendee.

“I’m always looking for ways to introduce the issue to young kids without frightening them,” Cameron says. “I thought it was excellent. I learned some simple ways to get kids thinking about it – and little things they can do to take action.”

Weeden worked with several faculty members from the College of Education, including Prof. Anita Greenwood and Clinical Asst. Profs. Eliza Bobek and Sumudu Lewis, to develop a workshop curriculum that met the standards for a professional development certificate.

Teachers received a variety of resources, including videos, articles and simple experiments and exercises that they could do with students to explain the basic concepts of climate change. A half-dozen UML faculty members from departments across campus also volunteered their time to lead discussions.

The second annual climate change professional development workshop drew two dozen K-12 teachers from around the area.
Photo by Ed Brennen

Chris Skinner, who joined the Kennedy College of Sciences in January as an assistant professor of EEAS, led teachers through an exercise that projects the declining number of snow days that New England schools will have as a result of global warming.

“It’s a nice way of incorporating real-world local climate data into the classroom and showing how climate change influences something that kids hold near and dear to their hearts: snow days,” says Skinner, who also led incoming first-year Kennedy College students through the exercise at this spring’s welcome day.

Skinner recently received a three-year, $225,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for research on “atmospheric rivers” that he’s conducting with a colleague at Yale University. The grant includes an outreach component that will fund next year’s workshop – much to Weeden’s delight.

“I have to thank Chris,” she says. “He’s only been here six months and he’s already got an NSF grant that includes this workshop.”

Asst. Prof. of EEAS Chris Skinner leads teachers through an exercise that predicts snow days in a warming world.
Photo by Ed Brennen

Besides expanding this year’s workshop to a second day, Weeden also included a larger social science component. Faculty members Vanessa Gray (an adjunct in peace and conflict studies), Charlotte Ryan (associate professor of sociology) and John Wooding (emeritus professor of political science) all led sessions, as did Meg Sobkowicz-Kline (associate professor of plastics engineering) and Juliette Rooney-Varga (associate professor of environmental science and CCI director).

Rooney-Varga gave teachers a preview of the new En-ROADS Climate Solutions Simulator, which she has helped develop through her work with Climate Interactive. Through role-playing, teachers learned how changes in energy, land use, consumption and agriculture policies affect climate goals.

“This game is still in beta mode, but we’re hoping it becomes something that goes viral and inspires action,” Rooney-Varga says.

Teachers exchange ideas during the professional development workshop on climate change education.
Photo by Ed Brennen

Shannon Souaibou, an eighth-grade science teacher at Trottier Middle School in Southborough, plans to use the simulator with her students.

“For a unit that usually feels very hopeless, it focuses on solutions and gives you some hope that there’s something we can still do,” Souaibou says. “It was great.”

Alex Przybylowicz, a senior environmental science major, also presented a project called “Can We Drag an Iceberg to the Equator to Fix Climate Change?” Using a “geoengineering scheme,” he and atmospheric science major Evan Gys ran a simulation that demonstrated how lowering ocean temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean over a 10-year period could weaken hurricanes.

What inspired Weeden to develop the workshop?

“Frustration,” she says. “Climate change is such a big issue, but it’s not being covered in science classes because they don’t have the time. So it’s essential that it be covered in other classes.”