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In New Jersey, climate change education is rolled into all sorts of school subjects

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

New Jersey schools recently wrapped up their first year of teaching climate change across all grades and in nearly all subjects. NPR's Seyma Bayram visited schools in the state last month to find out what students have learned.

SEYMA BAYRAM, BYLINE: Evelyn Lansing brushes purple glaze onto her clay tile.

CAROLYN MCGRATH: I think the blue stands out.

BAYRAM: She's a senior in Carolyn McGrath's ceramics class at Hopewell Valley Central High School in Pennington, N.J. Lansing and her classmates are sculpting tiles that show the impacts of human-caused climate change on their communities.

EVELYN LANSING: The tile I'm working on is essentially just a blueberry branch because, like, New Jersey's, like, the Garden State.

BAYRAM: Lansing comes from a family that grows their own food.

EVEYLYN: But a lot of those things that we're used to seeing aren't going to be able to be grown here with the continuing climate change.

BAYRAM: Freshman Devin Brown's tile shows a crayfish. She grew up catching and releasing them in New Jersey streams. But now, she's learned, climate change is threatening their habitat.

DEVIN BROWN: I think art is a really powerful way to spread awareness about climate change.

BAYRAM: Art teacher Carolyn McGrath says she encourages her students to think of art as a tool.

MCGRATH: How do we use art to explore feelings about climate change or to communicate about climate change or to motivate people to do something about climate change, right? And so this is the power of art.

BAYRAM: McGrath's ceramics class is just one example of how New Jersey's public schools are teaching climate change. In 2020, the state became the first in the country to adopt standards requiring it to be taught in K through 12 public schools. Those standards were rolled out last year. Laura Madden (ph) is a professor of elementary science education at The College of New Jersey. She says climate change instruction in K through 12 schools is long overdue.

LAUREN MADDEN: We've decided to take young children seriously. We've decided that this is something we can unpack in the early years.

BAYRAM: Madden advised state officials as they develop the new standards.

MADDEN: Climate change education does not have to be complex mathematical relationships or things that involve heavy vocabulary loads that you might expect to happen with later years. We could really get into a lot of the foundational information.

BAYRAM: Now, students learn about climate change in nearly all subjects, including physical education.

SUZANNE HORSLEY: So we just experienced this week some very interesting air quality, correct?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: Yeah.

BAYRAM: This is Suzanne Horsley. She teaches a wellness class at Tollgate Grammar School.

HORSLEY: So we are experiencing that, and that impacts our health.

BAYRAM: Her elementary students are usually outside. But on this day, they're indoors because of smoke from the Canadian wildfires.

(CROSSTALK)

BAYRAM: And the game they're playing helps them understand the impacts of wildfire smoke.

HORSLEY: Climate change is part of the lives of the students these days. So really, every possible subject area that can teach it should be teaching it.

BAYRAM: But not everyone thinks that climate change should be taught in K through 12 schools. Conservative states like Idaho and Texas have pushed back on such instruction in recent years. That's not an accident, says investigative reporter Katie Worth. She's written a book about how climate change is taught in America. Worth traces the pushback against climate education to the fossil fuel industry and its decadeslong effort to sow doubt about climate change.

KATIE WORTH: And so if you seed that into kids, you're protecting your business in the future, too, because now you're creating future doubters about climate change. And it really pays off.

BAYRAM: Even in New Jersey, where 70% of residents support climate change education, some parents oppose it. The state's standards apply to seven subjects, with plans to expand into English language arts and math classes. At a public hearing in May, members of a group called Team Protect Your Children spoke out against those plans. Kathleen Kirk was one of them. She took issue with elementary students learning about climate change, which she described as a theory during the hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATHLEEN KIRK: Climate change is based on weak science.

BAYRAM: But educators and experts say comments like this are exactly why state-mandated climate change instruction is so important. It protects teachers and students from efforts to deny climate education. Devin Brown says learning about climate change this school year has made her feel like she can make a difference.

DEVIN: I just think about how the small things really impact and how everyone has the ability to really help our Earth.

BAYRAM: But to do that, students need to understand the world they're inheriting. And that's why teachers, students and parents are pushing the New Jersey State Board of Education to expand climate change instruction into more subjects.

Seyma Bayram, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Seyma Bayram
Seyma Bayram is the 2022-2023 Reflect America Fellow at NPR.
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