Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Climate change and the under-10 crowd

My 8-yr-old daughter brought home her first science textbook from school yesterday, thrilled to show it off and slowly peruse its many full-color images. She knew she'd have a rapt audience in her scientist mom. Without thinking, I flipped to the table of contents and scanned the "Earth Science" section for any mention of climate change. Nothing.
My daughter, impressed that they named a
certain brand of scientific tissues after me.

"Wow," I said. "There is nothing about climate change in here."

"Of course not, Mom. That is way too advanced for third grade," she replied.

"No, it's not! It's very basic stuff. If you can learn about fossils, and phase changes, then you can learn about climate change."

"Anyway, I already know about it."

"Yeah, but we need all your classmates to learn about it too, because we need everyone to do what they can to stop climate change. It's not enough if just a few people decide to do things differently."

"What will happen if they don't decide to do things differently?"

"Well, we're going to trash the one planet we have."

"We don't just have one planet. Eventually we'll just move to another planet, if it gets too bad on Earth. You probably won't be alive by then. But we'll go - it's not our fault anyway, that the planet got trashed."

[me in a rare speechless moment]

"But in the meantime we should try to save our planet. Mom, are you trying to save the planet?"

"Yes. . ." [brain whirring with the reality that so much of my job is not about saving the planet, not directly at least; the whirring hasn't stopped]

"I'm going to make sure that my kids try to save the planet too. Mom, would you be proud of me if I spent my life trying to save the planet?"

"Yes, I would. Very."

Aside from the obvious set of personal reflections stimulated by this exchange, it spurred me to dig a little deeper into the K-12 Georgia Science Standards. As it turns out, the only mention of climate change comes in the optional high school Oceanography course standards:

"Explain relationships between climate change, the greenhouse effect, and the consequences of global warming on the ocean."

Georgia's approach is woefully out of step with the recommendations by the National Academy of Science, who published "A Framework for K-12 Science Education", featuring the following climate change standards for Grade 5:

"If Earth’s global mean temperature continues to rise, the lives of humans and other organisms will be affected in many different ways."

with much more in-depth benchmarks for Grade 8 and Grade 12, all detailed in a dedicated section on "Global Climate Change".

So, that leaves a big role for climate scientists in states like Georgia, who can supplement the outdated science curriculum with activities such as the one I designed for my daughter's school last year (slides here, pink balloon props not included).

So while my daughter's generation may not have caused the problem, they will have to be part of the solution, and I'd like to think that does not involve extended space travel. Let's equip young people with the tools and information to be optimistic and engaged, in the same breath that we tell them about the magnitude of the climate change threat.


  1. Nice slide show. Based on my experience raising four children the only thing that half way sticks is to ask them to switch off the lights, stop using so many clean shirts, and hang their towels properly. Once they are bit older they can be asked to segregate the garbage properly and stop asking for rides to the mall.

    I would leave the climate warming issue for a later age. An interesting way to approach it would be to explain why the earth used to have giant insects, the ice ages, and how the land changes area as sea level moves up and down.

    Children really shouldn't be too concerned over what is basically a political issue at this point in time. They'll have plenty of time to worry about it when they are adults.

  2. I too raised 4 children, and thought it was my job to ensure that they, even at 8 years old, should develop a moral consciousness, for their family, their community, and the world. This included not only discussion of social issues (racism), history (wars, revolutions, and concentration camps), as well as nature (conservation), which is indeed a moral issue. Learning about climate change at an early age is a critical part of the foundation for a being a moral person, for participating ecologically, for understanding ourselves in context. That begins at an early age, and is so much more important than any "rules" about where to hang the towels. And of course, as the grandmother of Tessa, I am eager for her to become ever more interested in her world, so that she can make choices from an early age as to what kind of person she wants to be, to become. I applaud you Kim for investigating the gaping hole in the Georgia school curriculum about climate change and hope that, in the future, we will have more information available to upcoming students. A better educated public is our best defense against climate change, and its consequences.

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  4. I admire your daughter saying that she'll try to spent her life saving the planet and her kids too. And I chuckle a little when your daughter said you won't probably alive by then, when the earth gets crushed. She's funny.