Project-Based Learning (PBL)

A Climate of Hope: Helping Children Respond Productively to Global Warming

The terrifying consequences of climate change can spur student action, and not just despair.

October 3, 2007

Melting glaciers, intensifying storm systems, rising sea levels, and species in jeopardy -- these are scary scenarios, especially when you're just eleven years old. When the fifth graders at Denver's Park Hill K-8 School decided last year that they wanted to focus on global climate change for an environmental-education project, teacher Melinda Bowers knew they would encounter disturbing images and dire predictions. It's a dilemma facing a growing number of teachers as they tackle the subject of global warming in the classroom: How do you make students understand the urgency of the issue without paralyzing them with fear? (See the Edutopia article, "Truth and Consequences: Teaching Global Warming Doesn't Have to Spell 'Doom'.")

"Some of the kids were really upset, but we tried to focus on solutions," Bowers says. She guided them through a research process in which they could form their own opinions. Students watched An Inconvenient Truth -- former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's documentary about global warming -- and studied the science behind climate change (including arguments that it is not a crisis humans caused). Then they found ways to get involved.

Encouraging children to take action can help them cope with their fears and keep them from feeling overwhelmed by the scope of the problem, explains Joan Bohmann, director of professional standards and continuing professional development for the National Association of School Psychologists. "You're empowering them," Bohmann says. "You're giving them options and leaving them with a message of hope: that you're not helpless and that you can always do something."

Bowers's students spent a morning planting trees in a city park, and they made and distributed several hundred bookmarks that list steps even children can take to protect the environment -- things like turning off the lights or taking the school bus instead of getting a ride from Mom or Dad. "I had kids tell me they put up a clothesline, or they were going to walk to school," Bowers says. Others decided to eat less meat (beef is a major source of methane emissions) or write a petition to George W. Bush, asking him to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

The Park Hill Project was part of a national program called Earth Force, through which groups of students choose an environmental issue to study and then work on sustainable local solutions. Other Earth Force groups have successfully lobbied for eco-friendly policies at their schools, such as turning computers off at night or not allowing school buses to idle.

Teachers can also help students grapple with global concerns by focusing on what's happening at the local level, Bohmann says, and by highlighting positive efforts already under way. Talking about a city recycling program or a new green building initiative can reassure children that adults are working to save the planet.

Using a tone conveying that the problem is serious but solvable is key. "Children very much mirror the response of the important adults in their lives," Bohmann says. She adds that though most secondary school students can handle learning about a global crisis, elementary school teachers should be careful about the scenarios they present. "Young children don't need stories of doom and gloom that they don't have any control over," Bohmann explains.

When Haily Summerford visits schools, she emphasizes that global warming is not a problem only adults can fight. "One thing I tell kids is, 'You have a powerful voice, and it's important that you use it,'" says Summerford, a public education specialist with the City of Fort Worth's Department of Environmental Management. "Kids have a big influence on their parents' behavior."

Summerford, who was one of 1,000 people trained by Al Gore and others to give presentations on climate change, focuses first on the local picture. Texas, she says, emits more carbon dioxide than any other state and all but a handful of countries. "I think that shocks them," says Summerford. But she also reassures students that even global problems can be solved. "The best example is the hole in the ozone layer," she explains. "All these countries came together, and they banned CFCs. Now, that hole in the ozone layer is shrinking. We did it. Why can't we do the same with carbon dioxide?"

Summerford gives tire gauges to her audience members even if they're not old enough to drive. Making sure tires are fully inflated -- or persuading adults to do so -- is a small step anyone can take to save fuel and reduce greenhouse gases. "I want them to walk away thinking, 'I can do something; I can make a difference,'" Summerford says.

Susan Lower, a science teacher at River Hill High School, in Clarksville, Maryland, has found that the first step -- whether it's checking the tire pressure or switching to compact fluorescent lightbulbs -- often leads to a second and third action.

“It gives students power to feel like they can change things,” she says. Lower’s students use an online tool to calculate their families’ carbon footprints, and then consider ways to trim their energy consumption. “Once they start doing it and feel good about it, they want to do more,” she says.

Like Summerford, Lower also works to convince students that global warming is not a lost cause. In Advanced Placement environmental science, she uses an activity developed at Princeton University called the Stabilization Wedge Game, in which students evaluate strategies to hold emissions to their current levels over the next fifty years.

Students select seven “wedges,” each of which represents a strategy that could cut greenhouse gases by 1 billion tons per year by 2055. The wedge strategies rely on existing technologies such as wind power and fuel-efficient vehicles, so the activity drives home the hopeful message that we already have tools to slow global warming. That’s not to say reaching the goal would be easy, though; part of the exercise entails weighing the costs and political viability of each wedge.

John Leck, a science teacher on loan to NASA from Montgomery County, Maryland, says he hopes to inspire students to become scientists so they can develop more powerful technologies in the future. “Maybe we’ll find a way to draw carbon dioxide out of the air and use it for energy,” he says. “We have had generations that wanted to get to the moon or fly supersonically. Now, maybe this generation’s goal will be to help negate at least the human portion of climate change.”

One way to motivate kids is to help them find reliable data and other resources, and then let them do their own investigations into the causes and likely outcomes of climate change, says Larry Jozwik, a former science teacher who serves as director of professional education and leadership at the Keystone Center for Education, a nonprofit group in Colorado that trains teachers in environmental education.

“Kids are looking for what the teacher wants as the right answer,” Jozwik says. He tells students he has looked at the data on climate change and is concerned but adds that there’s a lot we don’t yet know. When students do their own research, read differing viewpoints, and draw their own conclusions, Jozwik says, they have stronger convictions than if a teacher had simply told them what to believe. “They’re more supportive of doing something about it. They have a vested interest.” And, he says, that process of trying to make sense of numbers and trends, “that’s what science is all about.”

Denise Kersten Wills is a freelance writer in Washington, DC.

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