Oregon eyes mandate for climate change classes in schools

Sarah Stapleton, a professor of education at the University of Oregon, holds drawings and letters from elementary school students asking lawmakers to stop climate change after testifying in favor of a bill at a hearing at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, March 9, 2023. which would require teaching about climate change in public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. Credit: AP Photo/Claire Rush

Oregon lawmakers aim to make the state the second in the nation to mandate climate change courses for K-12 public school students, further fueling the U.S. culture wars in education.

Dozens of Oregon high school students supported the bill, saying they care deeply about climate change. Some teachers and parents say teaching about climate change could help the next generation deal with it better, but others want schools to focus on reading, writing and maths after test scores plummeted following the pandemic.

US schools have been at the center of a politically charged battle over curriculum and how topics such as gender, sexuality education and race should be taught — or if they should be taught at all.

One of the bill’s primary sponsors, Democratic Sen. James Manning, said even elementary school students have told him climate change is important to them.

“We’re talking about third- and fourth-graders who have a vision to understand how this world is rapidly changing,” he said at a state Capitol hearing Thursday in Salem.

Connecticut has the only U.S. state law requiring climate change guidelines, and it’s possibly the first time such a bill has been introduced in Oregon, according to legislative researchers. Lawmakers in California and New York are considering similar bills.

Manning’s bill requires every Oregon school district to develop a climate change curriculum within three years that addresses ecological, social, cultural, political and psychological aspects of climate change.

It’s unclear how Oregon would implement the law. Manning told The Associated Press that he plans to scrap an unpopular proposal to impose financial penalties on non-compliant districts, but did not say if another plan was in the works.

Currently, the bill does not say how many instructional hours are required for a district’s curriculum to be approved by the state education department.

Most states have learning standards—set largely by state boards of education—that include climate change, though their extent varies by state. Twenty states and Washington, DC, have specifically adopted what are known as the Next Generation Science Standards, which call for middle school students to learn about climate science and high school students to take lessons on how human activity affects climate.

New Jersey’s education standards are believed to be the broadest. For the first time this school year, climate change is not only part of science teaching, but all subjects including art, English and even PE.

Several teenagers testified at the state Capitol in support of the bill. No student submitted opposition testimony.

“In 100 years we’re going to have to teach our kids what trees are because there aren’t any left? It’s a thought that scares me,” said sophomore Gabriel Burke High School. “My generation needs to learn about climate change from a young age for our survival.”

Some teachers testified in favor of the bill. But others say they are already struggling to cope with learning losses from the pandemic. Adding climate change on top of reading, writing, math, science and social studies is “a heavy burden that will end up on the backs of teachers,” said Kyler Pace, an elementary school teacher in Sherwood, Oregon.

Recent surveys conducted by Columbia University Teachers College and the Yale Program on Climate Communication suggest that a majority of Americans believe that climate change and global warming should be taught in school. But climate change is still seen by some as a politically divisive issue, and Pace said mandating its teaching could create more tension in schools.

Nicole De Graff, a self-proclaimed parental rights advocate and former GOP congressional candidate, testified that her children, ages 9, 15 and 16, “have been overwhelmed with fear-based things like COVID.”

In Pennington, New Jersey, wellness teacher Susan Horsley aims for age-appropriate lessons about what can be a scary topic. In her K-2 physical education classes at Toll Gate Grammar School, she plays a pretend tree game, using beans that represent carbon to show students that fewer trees lead to higher levels of atmospheric carbon.

In Horsley’s lesson plan for teenagers, students learn how climate change disproportionately affects low-income communities. They look at air quality maps in areas with higher industrial activity or car traffic.

There’s a push for students to feel like they have some ability to affect their world, Horsley said. “Whether it’s saving water or finding ways to plant more trees or taking care of the trees that are already there … they want to feel empowered.”

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Reference: Oregon Eyes Mandate Climate Change Lessons in Schools (2023, March 12) Retrieved March 12, 2023, from https://phys.org/news/2023-03-oregon-eyes-mandate-climate-lessons.html

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