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Teaching climate justice in an earth science classroom

This is a story about how to teach climate justice. Emily Martin teaches high wchool science to 9th through 12th grade students in Hood River, Oregon. Two of her classes; Earth Science and Patterns Physics, include climate change. Emily has a master’s degree in environmental science and is confident about teaching climate change. She completed her degree some years ago and wanted to update her knowledge. She decided to take our nine-week Teaching Climate Change Essentials course to get up-to-date climate change information and to explore new teaching tools and student engagement strategies. Believing there was a gap in what was being taught about the disproportionate impact of climate change on marginalized populations, she wanted to find ways to introduce the social justice angle and put a human face on the topic.

In this interview, Emily shares with us innovative ways for how to teach climate justice. She tells us about an idea that came to her during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how she learned about new teaching tools and resources in our professional development course.

On doing the course, what were your personal takeaways as a teacher on to how to teach about climate change and how to teach climate justice?

My key takeaway was all the additional information (videos, resources, articles, websites) that I was able to gather. In particular, the information related to both the beliefs/values of Americans about climate change, and on the racial and economic inequities of climate change impacts.

Overall, the course gave me a greater depth of content–more resources, like articles to draw upon, for my classes. For example, I used some key, easy to digest summary graphs from the primary course text, ‘In Our Hands’ by Wilford Welch, when setting up the discussion of climate change.

I also really loved hearing lesson plans and ideas from the other teachers in the facilitated forum part of the course. Even though we were coming at climate change from different subject areas, I was able to borrow and incorporate parts of lesson plans from other teachers. I was energized to modify and improve my teaching and lessons based on what others shared.

How did you add to and improve your lessons?

Interestingly, it was during the COVID-19 pandemic that I found a way to connect the dots and introduce the topic of climate justice into my teaching about climate change. I used an article from the New York Times and had my students look at regional data for outbreaks of COVID-19, and which communities were impacted more than others.

I then used a ‘See, Think, Me, We’ graphic organizer from the course that has students look at a topic, think and reflect on what they are learning and what it means for them, then what it means more broadly for other communities, the country, the world, etc.

I then took this same teaching and learning approach and applied it to the topic of heatwaves. Students had to look at the data on CO2 emissions and which countries had the highest and lowest emissions, and then compare that data to extreme heat events and where those had occurred. Students discovered that the countries most vulnerable to heat waves were not those producing the highest emissions. At the conclusion of the project, students had to create a poster that visually represented what they had learned about climate change and climate justice that also incorporated actions that can be taken locally, nationally and globally to solve the problem. It was a process of exploring how to teach climate justice related to what was going on in the world.

I also added a new class on a geologic timeline showing key historic events and previous climates compared to today that I was inspired to teach by another teacher in the course.

I aligned my new climate change unit to Next Generation Science Standards. In the future, I hope to expand on this work and incorporate information or another class on climate disparities between BIPOC and white communities in the U.S. and global North & South.

What would you like to say to other teachers who are considering teaching about climate change, but who don’t know where to start?

I know it’s a hard subject. I feel at a loss sometimes on how to talk about climate change or teach about it, even though I have a strong academic background in it. My advice, teach from your heart. Find a little opening in your current course sequence to build it in – bring in an article about climate here and there. The content, ideas and resources shared in this course will help you do that.

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Emily Martin Bio Picture

I also really loved hearing lesson plans and ideas from the other teachers in the facilitated forum part of the course. Even though we were coming at climate change from different subject areas, I was able to borrow and incorporate parts of lesson plans from other teachers. I was energized to modify and improve my teaching and lessons based on what others shared.

Emily Martin