Survey Reveals Challenges with Teaching Climate Change

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This week, researchers at The Pennsylvania State University released the results of a nationwide survey of middle and high school science teachers on the teaching of climate change that tells us two things: first, we need to reach more teachers with quality resources about climate change and second, schools of education need to do a better job to prepare our future teachers in this area.

The survey results, published in Science Magazine on Feb 11 (Climate confusion among U.S. teachers), highlight challenges that surround the teaching of this important science subject. The survey was conducted among 5,000 middle and high school science teachers from 1,500 public schools across the country in the 2014-15 school year. 

The survey found that 3 of 4 science teachers, (70% of middle-school science teachers and 87% of high school biology teachers) allocate at least an hour to discussing global warming in their formal lesson plans. By itself this is an interesting finding; why would biology class be the place teach climate science and what other important topic would be considered as being “taught with only one hour of instruction per year?

When asked to select a statement the closest one to own their views on global warming:

  • 68% of teachers selected “global warming is caused mostly by human activities”
  • 16% of teachers selected “global warming is caused mostly by natural changes in the environment”
  • 11% selected “both”
  • 3% of teachers selected “I don’t know”
  • 2% of teachers selected “global warming is not happening”

But, the survey also found that

  • 30% of teachers emphasize that recent global warming “is likely due to natural causes.”
  • 31% said they “send explicitly contradictory messages, emphasizing both the scientific consensus that recent global warming is due to human activity and that many scientists believe recent increases in temperature are due to natural causes.”
  • Only 30% of middle school and 45% of high school science teachers knew that the vast majority of scientists ( 81-100 percent) think global warming is caused primarily by humans.

I am encouraged that the majority of teachers (68%) identified with the statement “global warming is caused mostly by human activities.” The fact that more teachers know the correct science than know the percent of scientists holding that view is good news. Teachers are going top the literature to learn for themselves rather than depending on the views of “experts,” regardless of how numerous they might be. Less surprising, however, is that  there is some confusion about the scientific research supporting climate change. The presence of climate change in science education, specifically on human involvement, is relatively new. It is only three years since the publication of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and implementation is just beginning. NGSS is the first set of standards to articulate the human causes of climate change. As the Penn State study notes, “advances in climate science and consolidation of scientific consensus have outpaced textbooks and teachers’ training.” The average science teacher has been out of school for about twenty years. It goes on to say that fewer than half of the teachers report receiving formal instruction in climate science in college, and two-third of teachers said they would be interested in continuing education “entirely focused on climate change.”

Our job as teachers is to prepare students to be educated consumers of science and make informed decisions about the world around us. This report makes it clear that science teachers need more and better professional development to build stronger content knowledge and confidence so they are better prepared to teach students this important science with its with its profound social implications. We know that teachers want to learn more about climate science– at our professional learning conferences last year, the sessions with climate scientists sharing their research with teachers was standing room only. NSTA also has multiple online resources, mostly free, that teachers can use to learn about climate change.

The 2012 National Research Council published A Framework for K-12 Science Education outlines a broad set of expectations for all K-12 students in science and engineering. The Framework, written by scientists and educators, provides a sound, evidence-based foundation for the NGSS that is grounded in both scientific and education research. The NGSS include the study of climate change supporting Earth and Space Science Performance Expectations in both middle school and high school. One of the relevant disciplinary core ideas is stated as:

            ESS3.D: Global Climate Change Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (global warming). 

Adopting and implementing the NGSS is very much a work in progress. States are engaged in deliberative processes to revise their science standards and once they do, teachers need professional development to adjust their practices. The fact that many teachers themselves are not clear on climate science should not be a surprise; what is encouraging is the number of teachers who are learning the science and are trying to present it to their students, beyond the older standards.

Studio portraits for David Evans

Science teachers need our support as they continually improve their science content knowledge and their teaching skills. And science students and teachers need our support by adopting and implementing the best science standards – those that include the human causes of climate change. (Even if that science isn’t always popular with lawmakers and special interest groups.)

Dr. David L. Evans is the Executive Director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). Reach him at or via Twitter @devans_NSTA.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.


What can you do now to learn more about Climate Science? Join NSTA, in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for the Climate Science in the Classroom virtual conference that will feature climate scientists and education specialists who will share both their knowledge about climate science as well as classroom-ready resources that educators can use with their students.


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