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Teaching climate change to elementary students classroom with students using models of wind turbines

An elementary school teacher discovers the time for teaching about climate change is now

Kelley Schleg was interested in learning more about teaching climate change to elementary students.  She is a 4th Grade Elementary School teacher in Kentucky. A large part of the science curriculum at her school is focused on energy. She is also the moderator of an Energy Club at the school that has won state and national competitions organized by the National Energy Education Development (NEED) organization. Understanding the importance of renewable energy resources and what happens if we don’t use them, Kelly decided to take our Teaching Climate Change Essentials course to learn more about teaching climate change to elementary students and to find new project ideas for the Energy Club and her classroom.

Below you can read our interview with Kelley to learn how she benefited from taking the 9-week course. And read how, after the course, she came to encounter the impact of climate change firsthand on a summer road trip with her daughter.

How much did you know about climate change or climate science before taking the course?

Before taking the course, I knew what climate change was and knew some of the political implications surrounding climate change. With that being said, there was no way I felt comfortable teaching my students about climate change. The information I did know barely scratched the surface of what I learned climate change really is.

On completing the course, what were the key takeaways for you in terms of teaching and learning?

In terms of personal learning, my main takeaway was discovering how important our timeline is to make change. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about other states and how climate change is affecting them. Here in Kentucky, we are so removed from other states. We get so focused on our own region that we don’t realize what is happening and honestly, the attitude I had was that it wasn’t impacting me, so I don’t need to worry about it. What this course did for me was to change my perception of how climate change was affecting my region. I just did not see it, or maybe I did not want to see it! My eyes were opened which has helped me to want to share this with others.

In terms of my teaching practice, the biggest takeaway for me was the websites and project ideas shared by others. I came away with tools in my toolbox to enhance this concept for young students in a way that won’t frighten them with doom and gloom, but give them an opportunity to find ways to make changes.

What will be your next steps in terms of teaching climate change to elementary students?

By the time I took this course it was almost the end of the school year and I did not have the opportunity to really implement any of the initiatives into my classroom and teach climate. This year I am planning to implement them. I want my students to research and with guidance, find ways they can implement a project they choose. For my energy club, I will be bringing in speakers and helping them to find ways they can make change in our community.

What would you like to say to other teachers who are thinking about or wanting to teach climate but who feel they don’t know where to start, especially those who feel climate education is not relevant to their subject or grade?

This is a big one. First, I would encourage teachers to take this course to help them get started and prepared to teach climate. I would then encourage them to visit some of the websites that were given to us to discover more.

In order for teachers to understand how climate education can be cross curriculur, they would need to see it and understand how it can be taught outside science class. Knowing where to go to get a curriculum or lesson plans that they can pick up and teach in their subject area is important. I have found that, if teachers have to create, on their own, a curriculum about something they do not feel knowledgeable about, they will not teach it. When they are shown how much information is available and how to implement the content into their subject area, that changes.

Anything else you’d like to share or add?

Just that this course was very informative without being political. I was glad of that as politics tend to turn people off these days. I enjoyed that it was science-based and supported with documentation.

Lastly, shortly after finishing this course in June 2021, I went on a trip that happened to be planned well before I even knew about this course to the Pacific NorthWest. My daughter and I went to several National Parks between Glacier and Olympic National Park. One of those being Rainier. Unfortunately for us, we were there in mid June when the temperatures hit the unprecedented triple digits! Being from Kentucky, we are used to heat and humidity. But, we have air-conditioning when it gets that hot, they do not!

While in Rainier, there were signs posted everywhere about the dangerously hot temperatures and the effect those temperatures could have on the glaciers. We were told continuously to have our head on a swivel and know how to get out if we heard or saw a glacier falling. Never in my life have I been faced with that type of danger. I came home with so much more respect for climate change, both from the course I had just completed and with first hand knowledge from seeing what was happening. So, I want to thank you all for helping me see more clearly the importance of all of us making changes for the betterment of our Earth.

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Kelley experiences the impact of climate change firsthand on a summer visit to Mount Rainer National Park.

I came away with tools in my toolbox to enhance this concept for young
students in a way that won’t frighten them with doom and gloom, but give
them an opportunity to find ways to make changes.

Kelley Schleg

Elementary School Teacher, Kentucky