13 January 2020

K-12 Teachers: Earth & Environmental Science need YOU

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Rose Cory

West Morris Mendham High School teacher Bruce Taterka measures how much sunlight is absorbed by tiny soil particles flushed into the Sagavanirktok River in the Alaskan Arctic (June 2013). Credit: Jason Dobkowski, senior research technician at University of Michigan.

We all share the burden of climate change. However, an unequal representation among earth and environmental scientists means little cross-cultural appeal to young scientists to discover and apply solutions to climate change. Because our career choices can be strongly influenced and inspired by a good teacher, my colleagues and I work to improve earth science teaching at the K-12 level. Our approach is to partner with the NSF-funded PolarTREC program to bring K-12 teachers to the Alaskan Arctic to participate in field research. On the front lines of climate change, the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the Earth. And, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay there because greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost soils create a positive feedback that will amplify climate change everywhere on Earth. Teachers turn their cutting-edge science experience with us into STEM lesson plans and hands-on activities inspired by an Arctic environment few students can experience.

Including K-12 teachers in our field work creates a multiplicative effect by making their experiences as field scientists accessible to many more K-12 students and their parents than scientists could reach alone. Since 2013 our interactions with teachers have led to peer-reviewed curricula in earth and environmental science inspired by our research and grounded in core education principles. Two K-12 teachers have taught more than 600 high school students and over 400 K-12 teachers about climate change in the Arctic using their first-hand experiences. After working with us teachers feel empowered and confident to teach climate change science because they can show their students how rapidly the Arctic is changing, and provide a broad understanding of climate change (and the scientific process) that is not accessible to students in books, articles, and talks.

David Walker, high school teacher from Liberal Arts and Science Academy (Austin, TX), helps graduate student Natasha Christman (Oregon State University) filter permafrost soil water in preparation for experiments in June 2019. Credit: Rose Cory

Is our approach working? It’s too soon to tell, but we know some of this next generation of students are now pursuing earth & environmental science in college, which is a step in the right direction.

-Rose Cory is a professor of earth & environmental science at the University of Michigan. Find her @rosem36.