PENNINGTON, N.J. — There was one minute left on Suzanne Horsley’s stopwatch and the atmosphere remained thick with carbon dioxide, despite the efforts of her third graders to clear the air.
“That was hard,” said Horsley after the round ended. “In this time period versus the 1700s, way more challenging right?”
“Yeah,” the students chimed in.
“In 2022, we got a lot of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” said Horsley. “What’s the problem with it, what is it causing?”
“Global warming,” volunteered one girl.
Two years ago, New Jersey became the first state in the country to adopt learning standards obligating teachers to instruct kids about climate change across grade levels and subjects. The standards, which went into effect this fall, introduce students as young as kindergartners to the subject, not just in science class but in the arts, world languages, social studies and physical education. Supporters say the instruction is necessary to prepare younger generations for a world — and labor market — increasingly reshaped by climate change.
“There’s no way we can expect our children to have the solutions and the innovations to these challenges if we’re not giving them the tools and resources needed here and now,” said Tammy Murphy, the wife of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and a founding member of former vice president Al Gore’s Climate Reality Action Fund, who pushed to get the standards into schools. Just as students must be able to add and subtract before learning calculus, she said, kids need to understand the basics of climate change — the vocabulary, the logic behind it — before they can tackle the climate crisis.
Historically, climate change has not been comprehensively taught in U.S. schools, largely because of the partisanship surrounding climate change and many teachers’ limited grasp of the science. That started to change in 2013, with the release of new national science standards, which instructed science teachers to introduce students to climate change and its human causes starting in middle school. Still, only 20 states have adopted the standards. Other states may not mention the human causes of the crisis, and a few even promote falsehoods about it, according to a 2020 report from the National Center for Science Education and Texas Freedom Network Education Fund.
Even in New Jersey, many teachers said they lacked confidence in their knowledge of the subject in a 2021 survey. The state has set aside $5 million for lesson plans and professional development, and it is enlisting teachers like Horsley, who holds a master’s degree in outdoor education and has a passion for the environment, to develop model lessons.
For now, the climate instruction requirements haven’t faced much pushback from climate deniers. Conservatives have trained their attacks instead on the state’s new sex-education standards. But state officials anticipate some criticism as the lessons begin to roll out in classrooms.
Supporters are trying to ensure that teachers have plenty of examples for teaching the standards in age-appropriate ways, with racial and environmental justice as one of the key features of the instruction.
“It’s not like we’re asking kindergartners to look at the Keeling Curve,” said Lauren Madden, a professor of education at the College of New Jersey who prepared a report on the standards, referring to a graph showing daily carbon dioxide concentrations.
On a recent weekday, Cari Gallagher, a third grade teacher at Lawrenceville Elementary School in central New Jersey, was reading to her students from “No Sand in the House!” which tells the story of a grandfather whose Jersey Shore home is devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Later, the students sat down to write about what they’d heard, drawing connections between the book and their own lives, world events or other books they’d read. Then, in a group activity, they built structures — carports, walls and other barriers made of Legos, blocks, Play-Doh and straws — that might protect against climate change calamities.
Research suggests education does have an impact on how people understand climate change and their willingness to take action to stop it. One study found that college students who took a class that discussed reducing their carbon footprint tended to adopt environment-friendly practices and stick with them over many years. Another found that educating middle-schoolers about climate change resulted in their parents expressing greater concern about the problem.
“Education is certainly a way that we could have perhaps slowed down where we are right now in terms of the climate crisis,” said Margaret Wang, co-founder and chief operating officer of SubjectToClimate, a nonprofit that is helping teachers to find and share climate lessons. More jobs related to climate change are already opening up, said Wang, and children will need skills not just to discover scientific innovations but to tell stories, advocate, inspire and make public policy.
One pressing concern in New Jersey is that the lessons are rolling out unevenly across the state. Schools in affluent towns like Pennington tend to have more time and resources to introduce new instruction; schools in poorer communities that are often the most vulnerable to climate disasters, such as Camden, may lack the resources to do so.
“I am happy to see New Jersey as a pioneer of climate change standards,” said Maria Santiago-Valentin, co-founder of the Atlantic Climate Justice Alliance, a group that works to mitigate the disproportionate harm of climate change on marginalized communities. But, she said, the standards will need to be revised if they fail to adequately emphasize the unequal impact of climate change on Black and Hispanic communities or ensure that students in those groups receive the instruction.
At Toll Gate elementary, Horsley, the wellness teacher, was getting ready to hand off the third graders to their classroom teacher. Before filing back into the school, a handsome brick building that suffered flooding last year during Hurricane Ida, students reflected on the lesson.
Ayla, a third grader dressed in jeans and tie-dye sneakers, said it made her want to “do something” about climate change because “I don’t want it to get so hot.”
Wes, another third grader, said adults could have done more to protect the environment. “I think they’ve done a medium job because they’re still producing a lot of carbon dioxide and a lot of people are littering still.”
“I feel bad for the other animals because they don’t know about it, so they don’t know what to do,” added his classmate, Hunter.
Abby, who wore a “Girl Power” T-shirt, said it was up to humans to drive less and recycle and protect other species from climate disaster.
“When I first found out we were going to learn about climate change in gym, I was like, that’s surprising, because normally we learn that in class,” Abby added. “But I’m glad we did it in gym,” she continued. “It was really fun.”
This story about climate change education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.