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Teacher Emelie Traub sits next to the sign for Cuyamaca Outdoor School

Teaching climate education in an outdoor classroom

This story is about teaching climate change in environmental education. Emelie Traub is an Outdoor Education Specialist at Cuyamaca Outdoor School in San Diego County, California. Aware of how climate change is affecting the environment and natural world, she wanted to find resources that would enable her to better incorporate climate change into her lessons. So, last year she enrolled in our climate education course: Teaching Climate Change Essentials.

In the interview below you can read about what she learned and how she chose to focus on plant phenology with her students. Plant phenology is the study of the timing of life cycle events in plants such as flowering. These life stages, or phenophases, are directly impacted by the local weather and climate, responding to environmental changes such as variations in temperature and precipitation. Emelie is now teaching her students about the importance of capturing and analyzing data to identify these trends and track the impact that climate change is having on nature. We were excited to have her share her story of teaching climate change in environmental education in an outdoors classroom.

What motivated you to take a climate education course?

My school program is unique. It is an outdoor student learning experience at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Groups of students come for one week only to study outdoors at the Park and learn first-hand about science, nature and the environment. Our teaching is student-driven in that they learn by doing their own data-collection and analysis for selected community science projects. Given the short period of time that students are with us makes it harder to teach about long-term phenomena like the impact of Climate Change. I hoped that taking this course would give me the resources to better incorporate climate change into our lessons.

Before taking the course how confident did you feel to teach climate change in environmental education?

Before taking this course, I understood the basics of climate change but not in enough depth to be able to respond confidently to all student inquiries. Discussions around climate change with the students usually felt clunky.

In terms of teaching climate change and environmental education, from doing the course, what were the key takeaways for you?

Probably the biggest takeaway was that we have to think outside of the box to battle climate change. It’s more than just driving less, it is also about the choices we make as consumers. Students play a bigger part in these choices than they realize. The course confirmed for me the importance of teaching climate education outdoors as part of my classes.

What initiatives did you introduce to your outdoor classroom as a result of taking the course?

For one of our community science lessons, students record plant phenophases to document any effects of climate change. Because students will not see any significant changes over one week, we graph the data over time to create a reference for the future students that can show longer-term trends. I also show students the trends of well-studied plants in other areas so they can compare and contrast the changes we are seeing around the world.

To begin with, I was concerned about the lack of long-term phenophase data from the Park since it meant our graphs failed to reflect any changes. After taking the course, I realized that there is value in showing students the information we do have. We discuss why we are not able to see any changes or trends, and it underlines the importance of collecting accurate data over time.

Looking at plants through a magnifying glass

How did this project work impact student engagement and learning?

Showing students the phenophase data that has been captured and the graphs gives them the opportunity to look critically at the information being presented to them. The need for accurate long-term plant data becomes very apparent to them. And, they become motivated to take careful accounts of plant phenology and keen to leave their mark on this long-term project.

They learn how to understand and create graphic models; identify phenophases; and understand how climate change is affecting those phenophases. And, we engage in discussions about how these changes affect other organisms as well.

What would you want to tell teachers who feel climate education is not relevant to their subject or grade, or they don’t know enough about climate science to teach it?

This course will give educators a solid foundation for incorporating climate science into their curriculum. The instructors start from scratch in order to fill any gaps in understanding and correct misunderstandings that an individual might have.

Climate change is a very relevant topic for our students as it will directly affect their generation. For this reason, it is important that they understand it from all angles; financially, politically, biologically, chemically, socially, etc.

Each school subject can take on one of these angles so students can piece together a bigger picture. A fragmented education is not nearly as powerful as one which weaves the subjects together with real life issues.

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We have to think outside of the box to battle climate change. It’s more than just driving less, it is also about the choices we make as consumers. Students play a bigger part in these choices than they realize. The course confirmed for me the importance of teaching about climate change.

Emelie Traub