Starting next July, Connecticut will become one of the first states in America to mandate climate change studies across its public schools as part of its science curriculum.
The new law passed earlier this year comes as part of the state’s attempts to address concerns over the short duration – and in some cases, absence – of climate change studies in classrooms. The requirement follows in the footsteps of New Jersey, which in 2020 became the first state to mandate K-12 climate change education across its school districts.
Currently, nearly 90% of public schools across Connecticut include climate change studies in their curriculums. However, by mandating it as part of state law from grades five to 12, climate education will effectively become protected from budget cuts and climate-denying political views at a time when education in the US has become a serious culture war battleground.
“The conservative turn in our country … often starts at a very hyper-local level of local town boards of education. There is this push towards anti-intellectualism, anti-science … anti-reason, and I didn’t want local boards of education to have the power to overturn the curriculum and say, ‘climate change is too political,’” Connecticut state representative Christine Palm told the Guardian.
Palm, who is vice chair of the Connecticut general assembly’s environment committee, first launched her legislative efforts to pass a climate education mandate in 2018. Through various surveys and petitions, Palm found that to many students and educators, climate change education is either not being taught at all in schools or not being taught enough.
“Anecdotally, I knew that there was no uniform approach and that I felt there should be,” Palm explained. She went on to introduce her climate education bill annually over the last four years until it was finally included in the state budget implementer bill earlier this year.
“In the public schools, the program of instruction offered shall include at least the following subject matter, as taught by legally qualified teachers … science, which shall include the climate change curriculum,” the current requirement reads, marking a change in language from “which may” to “which shall”.
“It sounds like a simple change, but legislatively makes all the difference between a law and an option,” said Palm.
The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a set of K-12 science content standards, are currently adopted by Connecticut and include standards pertaining to climate change studies which more educators will rely on as the requirement kicks in next year. So far, only 20 states and DC have adopted the NGSS.
“They are based on a framework for K-12 science education and the National Academies’ reports, which are developed by scientists and educators defining … not just what is important to know, but what is the best way for kids to learn science,” said Vanessa Wolbrink, an associate director at NextGenScience.
“I think a lot of the time, those who might oppose the teaching of climate science might believe that the standards are kind of subjective or would prevent true objective instruction but it’s really the other way around,” said Wolbrink.
“These standards … really emphasize student data analysis and evidence-based argumentation. This emphasis means in order to meet the standards, students are demonstrating critical thinking skills, they’re making these objective arguments with data and evidence,” she explained.
Depending on the grade levels, the standards vary. According to the NGSS website, middle school students who demonstrate understanding of the human impact on the environment can “apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment”, among other abilities.
Meanwhile, one of the learning goals high school students are expected to meet in regards to climate studies includes the ability to “use a computational representation to illustrate the relationships among Earth systems and how those relationships are being modified due to human activity”.
To help educators update their curriculums, Connecticut’s department of environmental protection (DEEP) is providing the state’s department of education with various resources, including those that will complement NGSS.
“A primary focus for DEEP is to provide hands-on investigations and data connections that reflect local needs and action. This makes things much more tangible and useful for teachers, as they apply Next Generation Science Standards and common core,” DEEP environmental educator Susan Quincy said, citing another set of academic standards focusing on math and English language arts.
As the state prepares for next year’s curriculum changes, experts remain cautious about the ways to relay information on the human-caused climate crisis to young students.
A global survey conducted last year amongst 10,000 children and young people across ten countries, including the US, found that 59% of respondents were very or extremely worried about the climate crisis. Over 50% reported feeling emotions including sadness, anxiousness, anger, powerlessness and guilt. Seventy-five percent of respondents said that they think the future is frightening.
With climate-related anxiety increasingly spreading among young people, many educators are adamant about not only teaching issues but also solutions.
“Working with these young kids, some of the things I think are most important is making sure children get not only accurate information but also hopeful information. We need to make sure that kids learn about solutions and creativity and resilience as much as they learn about causes and effects,” said Lauren Madden, a science educator and professor at the College of New Jersey.
Madden also stresses the importance of equity-focused conversations when discussing the climate crisis in classrooms.
“We have to acknowledge that climate change does not affect all people equally … There are kids in lower-income communities, communities of color and immigrant communities that experience flooding and power outages and things like that … in a much more magnified way than others,” she said.
“It’s critical that when we’re talking to kids at that upper elementary, middle school, high school level, we’re ensuring that we are coming from an equity-based perspective.”
With curriculums getting updated, educators such as Margaret Wang are also emphasizing contextual and interdisciplinary learning.
As the chief operating officer of SubjectToClimate, an online platform that offers teachers various materials on the climate crisis, Wang helps other educators integrate climate change into their existing teaching materials.
“Climate change is a highly interdisciplinary subject of sciences, but there are also … elements of writing [such as] being able to analyze media literacy. There are elements of math [such as] being able to calculate and grasp its effects over time using statistics and science. And there’s art as a way to mobilize collective action towards,” she said.
With less than a year left until climate change education is integrated across all of Connecticut’s public schools, lawmakers such as Palm are well-aware of the pushback that such a mandate will receive.
Palm said she tends to not get involved in matters involving local boards of education. However, she has in recent years noticed the impact of parents pushing back against educators over certain subjects such as LGBTQ+ rights, slavery and the climate crisis.
“In my experience, at least traditionally, [local boards of education] have been extremely bipartisan, hardworking and thoughtful administrators … [but] increasingly, that’s being affected by these vigilante groups of parents coming in and saying … they don’t want kids learning about [these subjects] because it’s too threatening to their delusional way of life,” said Palm.
“We absolutely have got to face it head on, and it starts when children are very young. We need to arm them with the tools to be part of a solution to a problem they had no hand in creating.”