The extreme weather events of 2023 – heat domes, floods, droughts, forest fires – have certainly gotten people’s attention, especially in the Southern United States, where multiple high temperature records have been shattered. However, it is hard to galvanize mitigating actions when huge percentages of people still think climate change will have little or no impact on their lives.
A fundamental part of this problem is that most people still don’t understand the basics of what climate and climate change is, let alone the more complex factors that have led to the records broken in 2023. Because of more than 100 years of unfortunate educational decisions, high school curricula in the United States and around the globe are largely devoid of any substantial climate science, or even any kind of Earth and space science. There is currently a major movement in the U.S. to change this, but it may be too late to prevent some very bad decisions for our planet.
2023 marks the tenth anniversary of the release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a set of performance expectations for the teaching of K-12 science in the U.S. that put Earth and space science (ESS) on equal footing with life and physical sciences. The NGSS included a year’s worth of high school ESS, largely focused on the science of climate and climate change. Unlike the contentious reception of the Common Core for math and language arts, the NGSS were enthusiastically embraced by most U.S. states. To our pleasant surprise, the NGSS have now been adopted verbatim by 20 states (and Washington, D.C.) and adapted by another 25 states. Only Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Ohio are holdouts, but even those states have adopted many of the principles of the NRC “Framework for K-12 Science Education” that the NGSS was built upon, which was released the previous year in 2012.
Getting climate science into a state’s curriculum doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be taught, and this has been a struggle in many parts of the country. Some school districts are trying to add a required high school geoscience course, but face an unfortunate chicken-and-egg problem: it is difficult to certify teachers for a geology course that doesn’t yet exist and impossible to create a course if there are no certified teachers available to teach it.
This problem would not exist if geology wasn’t nearly totally absent from high school science, a pattern that dates back to at least 1893 when the Committee of Ten report, led by then Harvard president Charles Eliot, recommended that standard high school science consist of biology, chemistry, and physics, omitting Earth and space science. This was understandable at the time: Hubble didn’t discover other galaxies until 1929 and the pieces of plate tectonics weren’t assembled until 1967. Today, however, geoscience topics and events dominate newspaper headlines and the research budgets of the National Science Foundation, but you wouldn’t know this in high school, where geoscience remains largely absent. Climate change is now widely viewed as the greatest threat to our global economy, but few among us have the knowledge to begin to address this.
There are some encouraging educational innovations underway, and one of the most exciting is the California 3-course integrated high school science model. This curriculum satisfies the NGSS requirements by fully incorporating ESS into biology, chemistry, and physics courses.
Societally relevant consequences of global climate change such as floods, droughts, forest fires, and sea level rise provide the engaging phenomena that anchor student-driven investigations. For this model, the high school chemistry program (required of all students) has a 1.5-month unit on climate science and climate impacts. School districts in many other states (such as Oklahoma, Virginia, New Jersey, etc.) are now adopting this model, meaning that millions of American children are now learning rigorous and quantitative climate science in high school: enough so that future polls will soon show most Americans aware of the impacts of climate change on their lives and motivated to do something about it. However, efforts are needed to accelerate the teaching of high school climate science in even more states. Scientists, educators, politicians, and parents need to push now for the schools in their regions to incorporate rigorous Earth and space science, particularly the topics of climate change, into their high school science courses.