Teaching Tricky Topics

Climate Change is a tricky topic to teach – I’m sure this doesn’t come as a great shock to any of you. Everyone seems to be very divided, with opinions running the full gauntlet. Things are so divided that I’ve met teachers that have said they do not even teach about it, fearing push back. However, they key word in all of that is ‘opinion.’ In science, ‘opinion’ and ‘data’ are very, very, VERY different concepts. Data is unbiased, raw, what you ‘see’ is what you get. No thoughts, no emotions, just numbers basically (and yes I know not all data is quantitative, but you get the point!). For example, the recorded numbers of butterflies in your home city is data. No argument there – just the count of how many butterflies in a city. Opinion is how you feel about or interpret something. For example, how you feel about the numbers of butterflies in your city. As in whether you like them, dislike them, think there are too many, too few, too destructive, etc. So, while they are linked many times in conversation, they are definitely not interchangeable!

While I certainly do not advocate debating or arguing with students on such a hot button topic, I also don’t think ignoring scientific data and the current world environmental situation is a wise choice either. Not properly preparing our students for the world they are entering simply feeds into the lack of public science literacy that we scientists and STEM educators rail against daily. By doing so, we become part of the problem, not the solution. There are two bits of advice I can give that I have found through trial and error to navigate the razor’s edge.

One is to simply present the students with data. You explain what the data is, what the processes involved are, and then let them draw their own conclusions. You can also let them explore the processes hands-on and collect their own data (in activities like the one I have co-written in my next post, Liquid Earth). That way, you are stretching their minds, giving them the opportunity to think critically and make connections, which is always a benefit, without influencing them with your own opinion.

The second piece of advice I have is to chunk the topic into small bites. Instead of teaching it as one big massive concept that is dripping in social connotations, break it down into individual components that singularly may not have so many previous opinions. This also makes sense in that climate change in general is not a simple and straight forward issue, but extremely complex and layered. It spans all scientific disciplines. For example, air temperature influences sea surface levels, which impacts marine life distribution, global human populations and weather patterns, which impacts not just the oceans but also continents, which of course impacts people and animals even more, and so on and so on. It all spirals together. In my humble opinion, 😉 (hehe, couldn’t resist) a major fuel of debate is that there is so much data, so many moving parts, so many disciplines involved, that it’s practically impossible for people to wrap their heads around. You need so much background knowledge to begin sifting through everything effectively. So, teaching it in bits really helps students gain that background knowledge. Tackling it like Legos can make the whole concept more manageable and understandable.

So my fellow educators, don’t let the fear of this topic scare you off! Stay focused on the data, teach through hands-on activities, and watch your student’s mind bloom like a flower. And in the end, that’s really why we all do what we do anyway, isn’t it?

Have you found any methods that work for teaching things related to climate change? Let me know!

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