Across the U.S., about 75 percent of public school teachers devote time to teaching about climate change in their classrooms, and four in five parents wish teachers taught about it. A major goal of climate change education is to develop students’ “climate literacy,” or knowledge about the Earth’s climate systems and humans’ role in it so students can make informed and responsible decisions.
Motivating for Climate Action
Climate action is behavior that helps mitigate climate change’s impacts or helps our world adapt to its effects. Knowledge alone, whether details of ocean acidification or humans’ role in warming the planet, isn’t always enough to rally someone into climate action. But knowledge combined with empowerment is a powerful recipe.
In psychology, it’s called the “theory of self-efficacy” (Bandura, 1994) – believing in one’s capacity to act and the ability to influence change, which are key factors that drives one’s behavior. This is incredibly important for environmental education, and research shows that climate knowledge combined with empowerment can promote climate action behaviors. (Heald, 2017, Chawla & Flanders Cushing, 2007).
Whether you teach social studies or science, here are some resources, tips, and strategies to help your students not only learn the climate facts, but support their empowerment so they can create positive change during this critical time for our planet.
1. Encourage Civic Action on Climate Change Solutions
While individual actions like conserving energy or eating less beef are important for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, “public-sphere” or “citizenship” behaviors are equally important in addressing climate change (Stern, 2000). This includes collective actions like voting, petition-signing, letter-writing, and advocating for policy change – all important parts of students’ civic education and life skills development. While your students are likely too young to vote, that hasn’t stopped the wave of student action in the Global Climate Strike and youth-lead Zero Hour, networks that provide students with resources to become climate advocates.
So, how do you encourage and help empower these citizenship behaviors? Allow students opportunities to build civic skills with milestone success markers. You can get started with the Youth Activism Toolkit, a free resource covering a range of activism foundations, such as “Making Changes in Your Community,” “Fundraising for Your Cause,” and “Influencing Lawmakers.” Born from the annual World of 7 Billion student video contest, which challenges students to share their sustainable solution to a global issue, the toolkit sharpens students’ 21st-century learning skills like communication, leadership, critical thinking, and more.
For community-scale organizing and partnerships, look into Schools for Climate Action, an adult-youth coalition with chapters across the U.S. that helps students advocate for climate action at their school as well as the local, state, and national level in many creative ways.
As you plan civic skill-building activities and projects, remember to help students define success in different ways and set smaller goals along the way. Studies show that breaking down a “big picture” goal into smaller steps that yield early wins can help build students’ self-efficacy, that important ingredient in empowerment (Beaumont, 2010). For example, if your students want to reduce public transit C02 emissions in their city, some early success milestones could be hosting a presentation to spread community awareness, presenting a proposal to a local city council, or publishing an op-ed in the local paper.
Whether it’s service-learning, advocacy, or activism, civic engagement is not only a foundation of our democracy, but crucial to finding climate solutions in our interconnected world.
2. Spotlight Climate Solutions, From Near and Far
Solution-focused, local examples are important for helping students see the different ways climate action is possible in their own communities. Find out who in your community is working on innovative or even small-scale climate solutions and highlight their stories when you frame your lessons. The strongest role models are not necessarily the most accomplished or powerful people, but people with whom we can identify (Beaumont, 2010). These kinds of climate action role models can positively strengthen students’ beliefs about their own abilities, which plays a key role in motivation and empowerment.
To look for local stories, you can check out How We Respond, a project launched in 2019 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It’s a great collection of compelling multimedia and text case studies on how local communities are addressing climate change in unique ways. You can use their site to search by location, specific climate impacts, and resource type.
Project Drawdown is another great resource that can help students decide which climate actions might be the most effective in their local lives. The project is a directory of science-based solutions, where each solution lists the amount of C02 that can be reduced or sequestered with each action.
Or, if film is more your thing, consider showing your high school students Ice on Fire (2019), a compelling new documentary highlighting how local communities around the world are finding creative solutions to the climate crisis.
With “eco-anxiety” gripping people everywhere, it’s important for educators to talk about how industries, governments, and students around the world and at home are taking action to solve climate change issues. Whether it’s suburban sprawl or environmental justice, frame your lessons with stories and solutions of people working in their local communities to help your students explore and discuss ways they too can make local change.
3. Engage Students with Citizen Science
Citizen science is a powerful tool that fosters collaboration among scientists and the public in data gathering and investigating local issues. It can be as simple as surveying and monitoring air quality to improve a community’s health, or heat mapping (taking temperatures) around the city to help plan for climate-fueled urban heatwaves.
NASA’s GLOBE program (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) is a program that recruits teachers and students to collect data that can help scientists better understand the Earth’s systems. The program’s mission is to “promote the teaching and learning of science, enhance environmental literacy and stewardship, and promote scientific discovery.”
For an outdoor experience, the National Park System has a number of student-driven, citizen-science projects, from surveying species to meeting with climate scientists in the parks. You can also reach out to your local watershed, forest, botanical garden, or similar organization to see if there are opportunities for collaboration. To help you plan your own projects, the California Academy of Science’s guide to Choosing Your Own Citizen Science Project has you covered.
Involving students in citizen science projects is a great way to build their climate literacy skills in a real-world setting while strengthening their social ties in the community.
You’re On Your Way to Climate Action!
There is a lot to grapple with when it comes to teaching climate change into the classroom, but luckily, there is a great community of teachers and scientists who want you to succeed. For more inspiration on how to promote climate action and to connect with a likeminded community, join the PopEd Webinar “How Earth Day Can Energize Your Students’ Civic Engagement” on April 8th! We hope to see you there!
Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998). Retrieved online: https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Bandura/Bandura1994EHB.pdf
Beaumont, E. (2010). Political agency and empowerment: pathways for developing a sense of political efficacy in young adults. In: Handbook of research on civic engagement in youth, pp 525–55.
Chawla, L. & Flanders Cushing, D. (2007) Education for strategic environmental behavior. Environmental Education Research. 13, 4. 437-452, DOI: 10.1080/13504620701581539
Heald, S. (2017). Climate silence, moral disengagement, and self-efficacy: how albert bandura’s theories inform our climate-change predicament. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 59, 6. 4-15, DOI: 10.1080/00139157.2017.1374792
Stern, P. (2000). Toward a coherent theory of environmentally significant behavior. Journal of Social Issues. 56, 3. 407-424. Retrieved online: https://spssi.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/0022-4537.00175
Image credits: “No Planet B” march sign (Li-An Lim on Unsplash); ZeroHour-3-1090389 (Climate March in Pittsburgh) by Mark Dixon is licensed under CC BY 2.0; Waste bins (Larry Strong courtesy of Recology); Citizen Science Coordinator assists students with data collection (National Park Service)