School looked a little different for New Jersey students returning to their classrooms in September 2021. What changed? Climate change was now a mandatory part of the curriculum.

Thanks to an initiative announced in 2020, the Garden State now requires all public schools to teach the topic under its new Jersey Student Learning Standards. Climate change now makes an appearance in seven subject areas, across kindergarten to 12th grade.

New Jersey is the first state to introduce a climate change curriculum in the U.S. However, its schools join a growing contingent of districts worldwide that have made climate change education a priority. Italy, for example, included climate change in pre-primary and primary education in 2012, and expanded it to its civics classes in 2020. In 2013, Indonesia included climate as a core competence. South Korea integrated climate change education at all levels in its National Curriculum Frameworks in 2007.

Climate change is a global issue with great importance and impact for future generations rising through today’s school system. It’s time we all follow suit and take a look at how we can address climate change in our own curriculum mapping and lesson planning.

Climate change: a brief 101

When UNESCO asked teachers about their schools’ approaches to climate change education, they uncovered some surprising data: only 55 percent said they had received training on climate change and sustainable lifestyles, and 60 percent didn’t feel comfortable teaching the subject.

So, let’s start with a little background. Call it a quick professional development session.

Climate change describes long-term shifts in temperature and weather patterns in a particular region or across the Earth as a whole.

What causes it?

Generally speaking, there are a few reasons that the planet’s climate can change: minute changes in Earth’s orbit around the sun, volcanic eruptions and even solar activity can impact what’s happening outside our front doors. But scientific consensus ties our current warming trend and increasing levels of severe weather events to an increase in greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane that trap heat in the atmosphere.

Why is it happening?

The Earth balances energy and heat through the atmosphere. Air and vapor in the atmosphere, and water in the oceans, circulate energy within their systems and across the globe. However, throw these systems into imbalance – say, by adding heat to the surface through a sharp and prolonged spike in greenhouse gas emissions – and stability goes out the window. That’s when we start to see weather and trends that are quite different from the “norm”.

What does it look like?

Indicators of climate change include surface temperature, ice melt, sea levels, ocean heat, atmospheric composition, glacial melt and more. As these indicators rise and fall, we can expect to experience more extreme temperatures and increasingly intense storms, along with the loss of coastal land. Along with these changes, the UN predicts that we’ll experience economic and social shifts as populations react and adapt.

Why teach climate change?

Flip through NASA’s planetary vital signs and you’ll see some eye-opening numbers. CO2 at its highest level in 650,000 years. An 1.18oC increase in global temperature since 1880 – with 19 of the warmest years occurring since 2000. A 3.4 mm per year rise in sea level.

Yet despite its pressing nature, only about half of curriculums around the world address climate change. That’s a problem, reports NPR: “More and more students don’t have to wait to learn about climate impacts in the classroom. That’s because they are experiencing them in their daily lives.”

That’s where schools play an increasingly important role. They are preparing today’s youth with the knowledge and skills they’ll need to navigate an unpredictable future. After all, their generation will feel the effects of climate change more than any other. They will play a key role in addressing the crisis.

So what role, exactly, do our schools and teachers have? Think of it in three parts:

1. Equipping students for a changing world

2. Motivating students to take action

Whether it’s reducing risk in vulnerable communities or creating the next innovation in green energy, our students have great potential to innovate new solutions. Education helps unlock that potential and develop it in a positive direction.

3. Encouraging others to act

Let’s face it: not everyone is swayed by science. But those hold-outs are more likely to listen to their more-informed children. Changing the behaviors and attitudes of others can help spread more awareness. It can help move entire communities toward a more sustainable path.

What can we learn from New Jersey?

For New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy, including climate change in her state’s educational standards is a no-brainer. “This generation of students will feel the effects of climate change more than any other, and it is critical that every student is provided an opportunity to study and understand the climate crisis through a comprehensive, interdisciplinary lens,” she said in a statement.

Interdisciplinary: a key word. After all, climate change is expected to impact everything from economics and law to agriculture and technology (never mind the social, political, ethical and philosophical dimensions of the issue).

Browse through New Jersey’s student learning standards and you’ll see what Murphy’s talking about.

  • Under visual and performing arts, you’ll find this statement: “It is not inconceivable that learning to leverage the capacity of the arts to raise awareness about the effects of climate change could yield employment opportunities focused on combating the negative effects of climate change and other societal global issues.”
  • Flip to science, and you’ll read, “At each grade level in which systems thinking, managing uncertainty, and building arguments based on multiple lines of data are included, there are opportunities for students to develop essential knowledge and skills that will help them understand the impacts of climate change on humans, animals, and the environment.”
  • Or explore computer science and design thinking: “Leveraging topics such as computational sustainability and clean technology (Cleantech), technologies that either reduce or optimize the use of natural resources while reducing the negative effect that technology has on the planet and its ecosystems, is essential for developing a populace with the knowledge and skills necessary to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

Best of all, it’s woven right into the fabric of every grade level and nearly every subject. It’s explicitly stated within the standards themselves.

Adding climate change to your curriculum

If you’re like nearly 95 percent of teachers, you agree it’s important to teach climate change and its effects in schools. But the question is… how to implement it when you’re mapping your curriculum or planning your lessons?

Here are some ideas to get you started:

Make it holistic

Students can read a “cli-fi” (or climate fiction) novel in English Language Arts, learn about the impact of food products on the environment in Family and Consumer Science while studying the underlying mechanisms in geography and science. Alignment across your curriculum maps and lesson plans will be key in developing awareness, knowledge, skills and behaviors.

Create assignments that matter

Take climate change learning outside of the textbook (and even the classroom!) and into the community. Think authentic learning – an approach where students learn through experience by getting hands-on and contributing a tangible result to a community. This approach helps learning stick by making learning more meaningful and getting students more engaged.

Go global – and local

Climate change is a global problem with highly variable local impacts. As such, it’s important to broaden climate change education in your curriculum to emphasize how interconnected the global system is, and the implications across the world. It also supports preparing students to face the realities they may experience at home.

Look to other students

Inspiration can come from many places, including what other students are accomplishing in classrooms around the world. Programs like Sandwatch help bring students living in coastal communities together to address environmental beach issues. A school in the UK launched student-led initiatives like a recycling competition and a walk-to-school campaign.

Build tomorrow’s skills

With so many unknowns on our horizon, students need to develop skills that will allow them to flourish amid uncertainty and complexity. Skills like critical thinking, advocacy, adaptation, ethics, information management, negotiation, empathy, forecasting and relational thinking will be increasingly important to develop through the curriculum.

Ask the experts

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to climate change education. World-class organizations like NASA, Stanford University and the United Nations, for example, have gathered resources and built curriculums designed for students at all levels that you can adapt and include in your classrooms.

Use technology to your advantage

Climate change is an important issue. For many teachers, it falls to the bottom of the priority list behind science, math, literacy and even financial education. We know – you’re busy and there’s a lot to do with (often) very little. But working smarter with technology lifts some of the load in lesson planning and curriculum mapping. It can make it easier to provide better learning experiences – and outcomes – for your students.

A change for the better

When 196 countries entered the Paris Agreement in 2016, they agreed to a lofty but important goal. They would limit mean global temperature rise to below 2oC compared to pre-industrial levels. But during the UN COP26, 200 countries adopted a climate pact that recognizes the role humans have played in the 1.1oC temperature rise we’ve already seen – and that we’ll feel the impact much earlier than expected.

It’s clear we can’t mitigate the causes or adapt to the effects of climate change without informing and equipping the next generation – arguably, the generation that will experience it most profoundly. By bringing climate change into our curriculums, we don’t just give our children the knowledge and skills they’ll need to succeed in a fast-changing world. We also build a strong future – a generation ready and willing to make change happen.

Check out part two in this climate change series, The Essential Parts of a Strong Climate Change Curriculum, and check out our Complete Guide to Curriculum Mapping

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