Iowa teachers are split on how to educate students about climate change despite strong scientific evidence supporting the existence of human-caused climate change, an IowaWatch study with the Cedar Falls High School Tiger Hi-Line newspaper shows.
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Moreover, their students also have mixed opinions on the subject, the survey showed.
Results of the survey of 133 science teachers from 54 public and private schools and one Area Education Agency in Iowa are anecdotal because the sample was not large enough to demonstrate a trend with certainty. But they offered a snapshot from Iowa into how differently teachers teach the subject, a result that is similar to results in a National Center for Science Education study the journal Science published in February.
Sixty-three of the teachers answering the IowaWatch/Tiger Hi-Line survey — at 48 percent almost one-half of those responding — reported that climate change should be taught as theory without concluding whether or not it is right or wrong.
Forty-three teachers, or 33 percent in the survey, said climate change should be taught as scientific fact but that teachers should acknowledge those who question whether or not it exists. Only 26 of the 133 surveyed, or 20 percent, said climate change should be taught as a fact.
“Earth’s climate has constantly changed since its formation,” one teacher wrote in the comment box when the survey asked for the teacher’s personal opinion about climate change. “While human activities likely have affected it, our current climate models are insufficient to predict how much and what kind of effect humans have on the climate long term.”
But another teacher in the survey wrote: “It doesn’t make sense to ask for an opinion on a fact.”
Climate change is “not about believing. It’s about evidence,” Kamyar Enshayan, director of the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Energy and Environmental Education, said in an interview.
Enshayan said high school students need to be educated about climate change before graduation. “They need to know that climate instability, just like other forms of environmental degradation, are totally a human, cultural, social, economic problem. It’s not a physics thing,” he said.
Read the IowaWatch/Tiger Hi-Line Survey Monkey reports:
IowaWatch_TigerHiLine Survey Data_Teachers_(c) April 2016
IowaWatch_Tiger HiLine Survey Data_Students_(c) April 2016
In the national study reported in Science, 30 percent of the middle and high school science teachers responding said they taught their students that global warming likely is due to natural causes. Twelve percent said they did not emphasize human causes during class and half of that group did not speak about causes at all.
The 1,500 teachers, from all 50 states, who responded to the national survey said they are educating students on climate change one to two hours on average over an academic year.
The national study’s authors said many of the teachers did not have a grasp on the topic and were giving their students misinformation about climate change. They reported almost one-third of the teachers surveyed nationally are “conveying messages that are contradictory, emphasizing the scientific consensus on human causation and the idea that many scientists believe the changes have natural causes.”
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CONNECTING STUDENTS AND TEACHERS
The IowaWatch/Tiger Hi-Line survey also was answered by 245 students in six Iowa high schools and one middle school. Some of those interviewed said they feel a sense of urgency about climate change.
“We’re getting close to, or we’re already past the tipping points, like the points of no return,” Cedar Falls High School senior Sarah Gao said in an interview. She is among the 64 percent of Americans who said in a March Gallup Poll they are worried a great deal or fair amount about global warming.
“The deadline now is really, really pressing and, so, people really need to get together before it’s too late,” Gao said.
Fifty-six students, or 40 percent, of the students responding to the Iowa survey said climate change should be taught as scientific fact but while acknowledging those who question whether or not it exists. Another 47 students, or 33 percent, said climate change should be taught as theory but that students should be told about the variety of thought that exists without conclusions on which theory is right or wrong.
Answers to the IowaWatch/Tiger Hi-Line survey were collected from Feb. 24 through March 3, 2016, and in a follow-up round on March 22, 2016.
Close to one of three teachers in the Iowa survey, or 32 percent, said human activity is the primary cause for global warming and climate change and should be included in lessons. Two of three, 67 percent, said they recognized human causes but that teachers should make it clear that there are competing theories.
“You have to be careful in that you’re talking about theories of climate change and not facts, because everything is still a theory,” Lynn Griffin, head of the Cedar Falls High School science department, said. “There’s correlations, yes, but there are not direct results yet.”
More than 95 percent of scientists agree that the dominant reason for climate change is human activity, a study published April 13 by Environmental Research Letters. The national study in Science showed that 30 percent of middle school teachers and 45 percent of high school teachers correctly identified the percentage of scientists agreeing on climate change reasons.
READ MORE Scientific consensus: Earth’s climate is warming
Cedar Falls High School biology teacher Debbie Paulsen recently started addressing climate change in her ecology unit. Beyond that, however, she said she leaves the matter up for her students to debate because of her own personal beliefs.
“There’s natural things going on, but even though we’ve had a significant impact, we’re getting pretty egocentrical to think that it’s just us,” Paulsen said. “We present some items of humans’ impact in the environment, but they kind of leave it just there. In the future, that may change, but the curriculum is kind of evolving.”
Cedar Falls High School chemistry teacher Jason Steffen said he does not hesitate to show that questions exist.
“I do link climate change to man-made causes, but I also link some climate change to natural causes. The debate then becomes on how much is caused by which factor,” Steffen said. “The science is very young. Is it happening? Yes. Is it all gloom and doom? We don’t know yet. It’s in its infancy.”
Cedar Falls High School’s Advanced Placement Environmental Science course carries a heavy focus on global warming. Teacher Meghan Reynolds said she frequently shows evidence of climate change within her lectures in her AP classes.
“I think the data is fairly overwhelming. Even if there was natural warming occurring, the rate at which it’s increased and the correlation with increasing human activity is just a really strong cause-and effect,” Reynolds said.
THE STUDENT PERSPECTIVE
But some students interviewed by Tiger Hi-Line reporters said they are skeptics of climate change evidence.
Cedar Falls junior Ashton Cross said global warming is part of long-term climate phases that the Earth goes through. “Back before we had technology, the Earth went through hot flashes and cold flashes in a way,” Cross said. “Melting-and-freezing has always been a big problem with the climate.”
Fellow junior Brennan Kohls said, “To me, it just seems like another one of those crazy apocalypse theories. If you look back in the ‘80s, everyone thought we were going to die from global warming.”
Kohls is enrolled in the Cedar Falls High School’s environmental science course, making the topic of climate change almost inevitable to avoid. “I try not to get offended,” Kohls said about what he hears in class. “I just suck it up and I listen to it anyway. If that’s their opinion, it’s their opinion. I’ll stick to my opinion.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF EDUCATION
Climate change should not be a two-sided issue, Maria Perez, a UNI adjunct instructor of biology, said. She teaches a capstone class about the subject at UNI.
Perez said her pet peeve is people asking if she believes in climate change. “I think it is the main challenge we have right now,” Perez said. “This is the generation that can change things.”
Perez also said students should be able to question the impact their school is having on the environment. “Kids should be able to ask their schools for accountability on the actions they are taking,” she said.
Enshayan, of UNI’s Center for Energy and Environmental Education, said climate change should not be controversial, and should be taught as a subject with solid scientific proof.
Enshayan said he was shocked to learn that some science teachers do not fully support evidence of climate change, politely saying that it is unfortunate.
He said there should be an ongoing conversation about environmental issues and that scientists should be able to hold their views as long as they can soundly debate them in front of other scientists.
Enshayan said he hopes educating people can lead to changes that overcome the impact climate change already has had and will continue to have on the planet.
“It’s fundamentally important for high schoolers to see, in their own schools, what is possible,” he said.
Lyle Muller of IowaWatch contributed to this report.
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This IowaWatch story was republished by The Courier (Waterloo, IA), Des Moines Register, Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Hawk Eye (Burlington, IA) and the Corridor Business Journal’s CBJ Education Report under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners. The Cedar Falls High School Tiger Hi-Line published a version of this story.
View this KGAN CBS2 News report about this story.