How do you teach controversial topics like climate change? Try these three approaches.

These days, the job of a science teacher could not be more important, both for society as a whole and for their students in particular.

Despite the pressures on education and educators today — seemingly from all sides — science teachers provide critically important opportunities for students to develop the scientific knowledge and skills they will need as adults. This preparation empowers them to make well-informed decisions as citizens, as well as to use this knowledge as a component of their careers if they choose. Indeed, careers in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines are consistently recognized as those that are likely to provide the most promising opportunities for today’s youth in the jobs of tomorrow.

In many communitites, most students are very interested in learning about climate change and even more interested in learning what they can do about it.

Yet, in some areas of science, teachers face more than they bargained for when it comes to teaching controversial topics such as climate change. Earth and space science teachers consistently report that they experience much more resistance from students, parents, community members, and sometimes even other faculty when they teach climate change or other hot topics like evolution or the age of the Earth.

As we all see on a daily basis, climate change is particularly prominent in the media these days, with reports of dramatic weather events and apparently climate-related disasters appearing in the headlines regularly. Despite this continuing drumbeat, a significant fraction of the American public (from 30-50%, varying somewhat based on recent weather phenomena) appears to continue to be ill-informed about what is happening to Earth’s climate and what is causing these changes.

Understanding climate change

Some have speculated that the presentation of climate change by the media is partially to blame for this ignorance, since the media tend to like to present things in a two-sided and theoretically unbiased approach that does nothing to get across the overwhelming evidence we have that the planet is getting warmer. Furthermore, broadcast, online, and print media outlets appear to approach this topic with a range of tones, from vociferously against global warming (attributing scientific reports to a scientific hoax or global conspiracy of scientists seeking research funding) to deer-in-the-headlights acceptance of the more dire predictions, encouraging immediate policy actions and more.

Considering this maelstrom of opinion on what should be just science, it’s encouraging that climate change educators at the K-12 level have a better understanding of our scientific knowledge about climate change than the general public (by about 26%), according to a recent survey by the National Earth Science Teachers Association (NESTA, 2011) and results of research by Leiserowitz, Smith, and Marlon (2011).

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