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Teaching teens about climate

Online courses give educators a boost

by Nicole Gordon

The millennial generation has much at stake in a warming world. It’s not always easy, however, for their teachers to convey climate science, particularly when the field is evolving and sometimes controversial. Educators who want to learn more now have an online resource from UCAR’s Education and Outreach (EO) office. Climate Discovery, a series of three six-week online courses funded by NCAR, gives middle and high school teachers the opportunity to learn about climate science and current research.

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EO started the courses as a pilot project in 2005, and the series became fully operational last year. So far, nearly 200 educators from around the country have participated in the program, which is an offshoot from a series of NSF- and NASA-funded summer geosciences workshops offered at UCAR from 2002 to 2005. Although these face-to-face workshops were well attended, they proved expensive, and educators with summertime or other family commitments couldn’t participate.


“The key attraction to online courses is the ability to reach greater audiences and increase the diversity of people who can participate,” explains Sandra Henderson, who coordinates professional development activities for EO, including Climate Discovery. “The beauty of this avenue is that it’s such an equalizing opportunity.”


Henderson says that teachers have expressed a desire for scientifically credible content on climate and climate change. “It’s always challenging to teach topics that are in the news with conflicting reports,” she says.


Although there is a wealth of information about climate change online, there’s been relatively little in the way of structured learning opportunities aimed at K–12 educators. Recognizing this need, EO leveraged its knowledge of distance learning to convert content from the summer workshops into three online courses: Introduction to Earth’s Climate; Earth System Science: A Climate Change Perspective; and Understanding Climate Change Today. It’s the first time EO has offered online courses open to all educators nationwide, even drawing participants from Mexico and Australia as well.


The courses, which are designed to be taken sequentially but also function as stand-alone units, provide standards-relevant science content, training on hands-on classroom activities, and a broad overview of the geosciences. Three semesters of each course are offered each year, with about 16 students per course. Educators can opt to pursue two hours of graduate-level continuing education credits via the Colorado School of Mines Teacher Enhancement Program.


One of Climate Discovery’s unique features is its focus on building community among science educators. Nearly half of educators’ grades are based on their interactions with each other, using Moodle software to share experiences and strategies in teaching challenging topics such as climate change. They also receive a teaching kit, letting them test-run hands-on activities as part of their weekly assignments.


Feedback from educators has been enormously positive (see comments below). EO hopes to expand its online learning program; the group is currently working on a module for the public with a focus on climate change and energy.


“These courses are an outcome of EO’s long-term commitment to climate change education in both formal and informal settings,” says EO director Roberta Johnson.

 

Teachers praise Climate Discovery

“The NCAR courses have increased my personal knowledge about the topic of climate change and, in turn, increased my students’ knowledge as well,” reports a high school Earth and environmental teacher in Chicago. ”What I loved the most about these courses is that we are given easy-to-use activities and demonstrations to try out first as students. This way, we were able to share tips and extension ideas with each other before actually using them with our students. The diagrams, video clips, and overall content can be applied to supplement a wide variety of topics.”


“These classes have been great—they are very worthwhile and enjoyable,” says one high school Earth and space science teacher in Phoenix. “The hands-on activities are tools that I will actually use in my classroom while teaching about climate; next year, I’m planning a big unit on climate and will add all of the information that I have learned in these classes.”


“I love the way the facilitators present information in this course,” adds a middle school teacher in Indiana. “Not only are they knowledgeable, but they answer questions, give feedback, and do not embarrass when you’re wrong. I use questions from the course with my eighth graders and they are amazed at the knowledge I have gotten from the class also.”

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