Research suggests teachers may be sending mixed messages on climate change

Retreat of Alaska's Columbia Glacier. Images taken by the Thematic Mapper onboard Landsat 5 and the Operational Land Imager onboard Landsat 8. Left: July 28, 1986. Right: May 30, 2011 Credit: NASA Earth Observatory, using data from the U.S. Geological SurveyAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — While a majority of middle and high school science teachers teach climate change in their classrooms, most aren’t devoting the recommended amount of time to the topic — and when they do, their students may be getting mixed messages.

Those are the findings of a survey of middle and high school science teachers conducted by Eric Plutzer, Penn State professor of political science; A. Lee Hannah, who received his Ph.D. in political science from Penn State in 2015 and is now assistant professor of political science at Wright State University; and colleagues at the National Center for Science Education.  Results of the survey are highlighted in an article published in the February 12 edition of Science.

Plutzer and his team undertook the first nationally representative survey of science teachers focused on climate change, collecting data from 1,500 public middle and high school science teachers from all 50 states. While the data suggests most teachers devote some time to the topic in the classroom, the median teacher devotes only one or two hours to the topic — less than the amount recommended by leading science and education bodies.

“Roughly three in four middle and high school science teachers are discussing recent global warming in their classes, but there is no cumulative curriculum for children,” Plutzer said in a recent Q&A that appears in the Penn State Research Matters blog. “So teachers are likely to cover the basics, but not go far enough to help students develop a solid scientific understanding.”

Survey findings also suggest that advances in climate science and consolidation of scientific consensus have outpaced textbooks and teachers’ training, with fewer than half of the teachers reported having any formal instruction on climate science in college. Politics and other societal factors — even teachers’ perceptions of climate change — can influence the way teachers introduce and teach climate change in the classroom.

“About one in three teachers gives voice to non-scientific alternatives, sending mixed messages to students,” Plutzer noted in the Q&A. “Because climate change has become politicized, teachers themselves may get their information from political rather than scientific sources. And they may be timid in providing a forthright discussion of the scientific consensus for fear of generating controversy in their own classroom.”

The key moving forward, the researchers suggest, is to ensure that future teachers receive some sort of formal, consistent instruction on climate science while still in college. Current middle and high school teachers, meanwhile, should be able to take one or more continuing education courses on the topic — something that most of the survey respondents indicated they would be interested in doing.

Last Updated July 29, 2017