The need for climate change education is clear to Hoosiers. Indeed, 72% — almost three quarters — of them agree that schools should teach our children about the causes, consequences and potential solutions to global warming, according to the latest estimate from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. So the new state science standards, approved by the state board of education in June, ought to be greeted with enthusiasm.
Climate change wasn’t adequately addressed in the old standards, which received the grade of D in a 2020 study of the treatment of climate change in state science standards conducted by the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund. A reviewer commented that the standards failed to “meet the needs of Indiana students in the process of learning their foundational understanding of the world they are inheriting.”
That can’t be said of the new standards, which will expect middle school students to “ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century” and high school students to “analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.”
These expectations are identical to expectations found in the Next Generation Science Standards, which have been endorsed by the National Science Teaching Association and adopted by 20 states (plus the District of Columbia) so far. But the new standards go further, including two additional Earth and Space Science standards as well as a set of standards for high school Environmental Science, which afford students further opportunities to learn about climate change.
So in adopting the new standards, Indiana took a huge step forward in preparing its students in its public schools to cope with the challenges of the warming world they will inherit. But it is only the first step along the way. Now that the state is expecting its public school educators to teach about climate change more extensively and thoroughly than ever before, it will be necessary to ensure that they are prepared to meet the increased demands of the new standards.
Unfortunately, there is evidence that science teachers are by and large not prepared to teach climate change effectively. A national survey of public middle and high school science educators conducted by the National Center for Science Education and Pennsylvania State University revealed a disturbing fact: More than half of the teachers surveyed reported having never taken a course in college that devoted as much as a single class session to the topic.
By the same token, it is often difficult for such educators to find reliable, up-to-date and age-appropriate curriculum materials to use. A middle school science teacher in Indianapolis told Indiana Public Media in 2019 that she was forced to spend “countless hours sifting through climate change info to make her lesson plans” for want of such materials, although the state department of education and Purdue University later collaborated on providing a set of climate change resources for Indiana teachers.
A straightforward approach to solving the problem of teacher under preparation to teach climate change effectively is to provide curriculum and professional development specifically focused on the topic. In the past few years, legislation appropriating funds for that purpose appeared in statehouses across the country and was enacted in three states: Washington, California, and most recently Maine. Indiana would do well to follow their lead.
Indiana’s climate is already changing, with soaring temperatures, increasing precipitation, and more frequent extreme weather events, alldocumented by the Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment at Purdue University. It is encouraging that science education in Indiana is on its way to changing as well. But it is necessary for the state to follow through on its commitment to improve science education by ensuring that its teachers are ready, willing, and able to teach climate change effectively.
Glenn Branch is the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit organization that promotes and defends accurate and effective science education.