Thursday, May 17, 2007

Speaking with students about climate change

A couple weeks ago, I had the chance to talk about climate change to an auditorium full of high school students in northern New Jersey. The students showed a surprising amount of interest in my presentation; in high school, I could barely stay awake during class. But these students were alert, they asked questions, and many stayed afterwards to thank me for explaining the basics of the science.

The next week, I spoke again about climate change to a group of high school science supervisors from around the state. Inspired by the experience with the packed auditorium, I settled on a core message, which went more or less like this:

"Like it or not, the life of your students will be defined in large part by climate change. They will experience the impacts of climate change. And their generation, along with mine, will be responsible for coping with and/or solving the problem.

Whatever their chosen path in life, whether they become mechanics, scientists, architects, farmers, government workers, you name it, climate change and the effort to mitigate and adapt to climate change, will in many ways define their lives.

If students do not learn the science and the evidence in a formal, organized way, as can happen only in school, we are not only doing the world a disservice, we are doing them a disservice."

Naturally, this led to a discussion about the oft-proposed solution of showing An Inconvenient Truth in schools. Many of the teachers and supervisors spoke openly about their concerns with the film. I think it is an ideal film for a current events or social studies class. It can be a springboard for discussions on crucial topics like the ethics of climate change, the balance between adaptation and mitigation, how science should be used by society, etc.

My feeling is that it should not, however, be shown in science class. Not because Al Gore botches the science: the basic explanation of climate change in the first half of the film is quite good and not terribly different from what I often present myself (although the discussion of impacts in the second half is too loose and vague about timing of things like sea level rise). But because we don’t teach use popular films to teach students the guts of Newtonian physics or Mendelian genetics*.

We shouldn’t here either. Students can, and should, learn about the climate and climate change the way all science is taught. Classroom lectures, problem sets, tests, essays, etc. Unlike people in the working world, the students of today have the great opportunity to learn about climate change in an organized fashion, in school, rather than in the public sphere, where the science is warped by media bias, by overly "framing" science, or by political rhetoric.

* A blog footnote: My first instinct in writing that sentence was to use evolution as an example of a pillar of science education. Sadly, that is not true in much of this country. In a recent debate, the ten Republican candidates for President were asked if “anyone here does NOT believe in evolution”. Three of the candidates raised their hands. I admit I did too, though only to smack myself on the forehead.


Gatsby said...

That was a pretty sad moment in the Republican debates. Then again, they all seemed to be competing to be the most closed-minded and backward thinking, at least in terms of social issues. At least only one of them can be nominated.

Simon Donner said...

Yes, it was rather sad. Hand-raising Rep. Tom Tancredo also stated, in response to a question, that the last piece of fiction he'd read was An Inconvenient Truth. He's two for two -- doesn't "believe" in evolution or climate change. Maybe in the next debate he'll be asked whether he believes in plate tectonics or, say, gravity.