Lindsey Kapel is a senior at Weston High School in Weston, CT who will be attending Emory University next fall. Her interest in climate change prompted her to design a study in which she examined student perception and knowledge of climate change at her high school.
As a junior, it seemed so strange to me that discussions on the development, impact, and potential solutions of climate change were not being addressed in my classes over the prior three years — especially since I attend an excellent National Blue Ribbon-awarded high school with about 750 students. Maybe I just wasn’t taking the right courses?
I wanted to know: Why are we not learning more about climate change at my high school? That’s the question that I addressed as I surveyed the students and teachers at Weston High School (WHS) in Connecticut.
The Study Design
I jumped into a semester-long independent study, where I designed a survey for my fellow students as well as my teachers. I wanted to learn what other students think about climate change. I wanted to assess the students’ knowledge, perception, and understanding of climate change, if they are concerned about it, and if they are interested in learning more about this topic in high school. I also wanted to research what my teachers think about climate change. Finally, I wanted to determine if the subject of climate change is being taught or explored in classrooms at my high school.
As I started my project, I did some preliminary research into my school curriculum. I then examined other studies on climate change education, including a helpful study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
I created two surveys, one for students and one for teachers. The student survey was 22 questions long and I received 208 responses. The teacher survey was 13 questions long and I received 42 responses.
Most students (83%) do believe that climate change is happening (see Figure 1). Similarly, the majority (77%) of students are worried about climate change damaging the earth or harming people, now or in the future.
Several basic factual questions regarding climate change were asked, including a question on the role of climate change in extreme weather events (see Figure 2), which over 30% of students answered incorrectly. Specifically, many students did not properly associate climate change with extreme weather events (and many students also did not identify the relationships to melting ice caps and endangered species).
On a somewhat more positive note, only 17% of students incorrectly identified the definition of the “greenhouse effect” — but I had hoped that incorrect response rates would have been closer to 0%.
When I asked students about their education on climate change, the majority (79%) responded that they are not learning anything about climate change in high school, and a few (19%) are learning “very little.”
Also, the great majority of students (78%) believe they do not have enough information to understand the facts about climate change, and develop an opinion on whether or not our society should take actions to decrease the potential impact of global warming. However, the majority (61%) of the students think climate change should be taught more often in high school (see Figure 3).
Most teachers (88%) believe that climate change is happening and the great majority (93%) are worried about climate change damaging the earth or harming people, now or in the future.
When I asked teachers about their own experience incorporating climate change education into their lessons, some (24%) say they do teach or explore the subject of climate change, either formally or informally in their classes. Unfortunately, only 36% of teachers believe that students will graduate my high school with a good understanding of climate change (see Figure 4).
However, the great majority of teachers (95%), like the students, believe there should be more teaching, exploration and discussion about climate change in the WHS curriculum (see Figure 5).
The strongest message from the survey is that students acknowledge the need and desire to learn more about climate change science. Admirably, the majority of students recognize the lack of climate change education in our school and want more.
In order to combat one of the greatest problems of our generation, we need to understand it. The fact that many students do not know basic facts about climate change is a red flag.
Students are actually asking for more education — how often does that happen? If this is the case, why don’t school boards and administrators make climate change education a critical priority when designing our curriculum? Do we need to better address the political factors in play that may prevent the advancement of this cause?
In addition to asking my school administrators to look at incorporating climate change education and discussion into our curriculum, I have recommended that we have the ACE Assembly at our school.
In college, I hope to learn more about the environment and ways to lessen the effects of climate change. I also hope to see more climate change education implemented at my high school and high schools across the country. According to my study, students and teachers both want more climate change education — let’s give it to them!