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Missouri Teachers Are Schooling Students On Climate Change Even Though It’s Not Required

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With the impacts of climate change becoming more visible, scientists and teachers across the nation are working out how to teach about the topic in the nation’s classrooms.

Teachers in Missouri are using real-world issues and collaboration to help their students understand the science of climate change and the effect it could have on local communities.

“I think because our current environmental movement is very much led by teenagers, students are very excited about it,” said Jen Lacy, an environmental science teacher at Crossroads Preparatory Academy.

Lacy said she tailors her approach to resonate with students. “I try to bring a lot of the human stories that go along with climate change,” she said.

She often incorporates examples of extreme weather, such as hurricanes and floods, and then explains how natural disasters can displace communities and businesses.

Push back

When Sarah Apple tried to teach about climate change a decade ago, she was met with opposition from parents and students and ultimately was called to the principal’s office.

“(They) would get emotional and upset when you try and explain that the Bible is not a scientific source of information,” said Apple, who now teaches at Raytown South High school.

Lacy also used to teach science in a rural district near Kansas City and said she had a similar experience. In their classrooms today, both teachers have found students are more receptive to learning about climate change.

No requirement

There is also concern about how many students learn about climate change at school. In Missouri’s science standards for K-12 schools, climate change is only required in environmental or earth science classes.

“The hard part, at the high school level,” Apple said, “is that earth science is typically an elective, so not very many students actually end up in that course.”

In high schools, some teachers plan lessons on climate change as part of biology, chemistry or physics courses, which are all required at the high school level in Missouri. But climate change is not a required part of the curriculum, so it’s up to the teachers to decide whether to include it.

An interdisciplinary approach

Educators agree that an interdisciplinary approach is best.

“It’s important for students to be able to connect the dots between different systems, (like) government, economy, and social things like environmental racism,” Lacy said.

She works to provide this bigger picture in her classroom but struggles because of the way high schools are designed.

“There’s not space in the curriculum for me to collaborate with the social studies teacher,” she said.

Michael Wysession, a geophysicist from Washington University in St. Louis, pointed out that climate change is part of what led to Missouri becoming a state.

In 1815, Mount Tambora erupted in Indonesia, sending ash and sulfur into the atmosphere. The following year became known as “the year without a summer” and crops on the East Coast failed.

“New Englanders and coast people fled west,” Wysession said, turning Missouri into a state in 1821.

Climate has been changing throughout the planet’s history, but Wysession said the difference with what we’re experiencing now is the human impact.

“We now drive the climate system,” Wysession said.

‘You don’t want to scare them’

Wysession said one of the most critical elements to climate change curriculum is a solutions approach. “It’s not just ‘oh, look what’s happening,’ but how do you fix it? How do you design a solution? How do you mitigate it?” he said.

Lacy and Apple agree.

“This is really urgent, but you don’t want to scare them because a lot of times when you scare people too much then they can just kind of give up and shut down,” Apple said.

“I always try to balance my curriculum with signs of hope,” said Lacy. “There are people fighting against climate change and working to mitigate it in positive ways that have bettered their community.”

Jen Lacy, Sarah Apple and  Michael Wysession spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Up To Date. Listen to the entire conversation here.

Jamie Hobbs is an intern for KCUR's Up To Date.