“‘Where do we go now?” Taking climate change beyond science class

This is the third story in “Teaching the Future,” a three-part series published originally in WCAI.

In high school in Massachusetts, climate change mostly appears in earth science or environmental science, if and when those courses are offered. But some teachers are finding ways to take the subject far beyond science class.

One of the first things students see, when they walk into Jane Paquet’s classroom at Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, is a list of questions on her green chalkboard. Questions like:

What is the difference between a need and a want?

Should government regulate business and economy?

ow do culture and economics affect our treatment of the planet and its resources?

How much do you need to know about where you live?

How did we get here, and where do we go now?

Not questions you would necessarily expect in a high school science class. But this is an environmental science class, one that Paquet teaches as part of a year-long interdisciplinary course that focuses heavily on climate change – the science of it, but also the implications, politically, economically and socially.

Jonah Maidoff teaches the other half of that course, the social science half. “Understanding the science as a foundation for making real social and political change,” he said, “one and the other as separate things, I don’t think they’re as powerful.”

Lori Weeden, a professor with the Climate Change Initiative at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said this is not how climate change is typically taught in high schools, and certainly not how it appears in the state standards in Massachusetts.

In the standards for high school, she said, climate change “falls under the category of earth and space science, which many schools either don’t have the resources, or the faculty, or the time to teach.”

One of the main reasons public schools are less likely to teach earth science than chemistry, biology, or physics, is that earth science is not tested on the MCAS, the state standardized test. Chris Brothers, who chairs the science department at Falmouth High School, said that most schools have to prioritize what’s on the test because kids have to pass it to graduate.

“I remember sitting in a meeting with a bunch of biology teachers who were all advocating with people from the state Department of Education, ‘we need an earth science MCAS too, or schools aren’t going to teach it.’ And,” Brothers said, “that’s exactly what happened.”

Case in point: Falmouth doesn’t offer earth science in high school anymore. Instead, it offers environmental science, and a class on the natural history of Cape Cod. In those classes, climate change comes up a fair amount, Brothers said. “But could you go through an entire high school career without getting much? I think you could. Depending on what science courses you took.”

Jonah Maidoff teaches the social science portion of a year-long interdisciplinary class at Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School that focuses heavily on climate change. (Photo by Samantha Fields/WCAI)

A 2016 study from the National Center for Science Education found that about 75 percent of science teachers do teach about climate change in their classes, but most of them only spend a few hours on it a year.

Ethan Aubrey Quinn Taylor is a junior in Jane Paquet and Jonah Maidoff’s class on the Vineyard, and until now, Taylor said, climate change only ever came up occasionally in school.

“We’ve talked a little about it,” Taylor said, “but not a lot of, like, this is what it’s doing, and this is what we can do about it.”

“What we can do about it” is a big part of what Maidoff focuses on throughout the year. The big end-of-year project for the class, he said, is for each student to develop an action plan, to get “involved in doing real work on either mitigating, identifying, helping other people understand the coming effects of climate change. So that they are empowered, rather than feeling defeated or knocked out by the state of the world.”

One example he threw out there for his students early on, to get them thinking about what they might want to do: developing a plan for the road between Vineyard Haven and the local hospital, which is prone to flooding.

Flooding is something Ethan Aubrey Quinn Taylor thinks about a lot, and has already noticed getting worse here on the Vineyard.

“As I’ve been getting older, I’ve been seeing it get deeper and deeper and deeper. And I’m like, well, if this is only happening in 16 years, what’s it gonna look like in 20 years? What is going to happen to all of these businesses that I know and visit?” Taylor asked. “Like Chicken Alley? And the Steamship, and the Black Dog right there? Porto’s Pizza? The Stop and Shop right on the coast of Vineyard Haven? What’s going to happen to all of those if we don’t do something about this right now?”

Lori Weeden, of the UMass Lowell Climate Change Initiative, said more schools need to be taking this kind of approach – integrating climate change into every class, not just one science class, here and there.

“There are a lot of issues out there,” she said. “And until climate change becomes at the forefront, where it becomes what we teach about, and we put climate change in the context of biology, we put climate change in the context of physics, and English, and art, and all of these things – until that’s what it’s all about, it won’t be addressed.”

Until there are major changes at the state or national level, that’s going to fall to individual schools, and teachers, to figure out on their own.