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Classroom climate change

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Libby Strong remembers feeling uneasy, standing in front of a classroom full of students in Mt. Storm and preparing a lesson on climate change during the early 1990s. The area is home to a large coal-fired power plant and nearby Mettiki Mountain View Mine, which produces more than 2 million tons of coal each year.

"In West Virginia, you have to be careful. You can't come out and say something's bad if their daddies are in the industry," she said. "Most of the students' fathers and mothers worked in a coal mine or in a coal-fired power plant. Those things are really charged issues."

For the first time, new nationwide science standards, expected to be finalized this month, will recommend that public schools focus more on climatic shifts.

"The Next Generation standards are putting emphasis on energy and environment -- those are two E's in West Virginia that can be touchy," said Strong, president-elect of the West Virginia Science Teachers Association, who has been teaching science in the state for more than 20 years.

West Virginia has been a lead state in developing the Next Generation Science Standards, which will create new performance expectations for K-12 students for the first time in 15 years, according to Robin Anglin, science coordinator for the state Department of Education.

"How the standards are taught in the classroom is still a state and local decision. How the science is used is left to policymakers and politicians," she said. "Science education today is about more than learning the order of the planets in the solar system -- it's about educating students in whole-systems thinking."

Anglin said lessons on climate change have been embedded in the state's curriculum for several years, and high schools offer electives focusing on environmental science.

"It isn't as though we're telling students what to think. Teachers should show both sides of the argument and allow students to research on their own and make their own decisions based on the information," she said. "There should be a conversation in the classroom that allows both sides to give their point of view and find the best compromise between ecology and economy.

"So, we might say that coal is done as well as it can be done while still protecting the environment or talk about the best technologies to do it safely for miners and the environment."

Strong says that's easier said than done for some teachers, though. Teaching the subject hasn't gotten any simpler in the state over the years, she said.

"I'm sure it's probably something [teachers] would rather not do, but almost every teacher I've ever talked to is committed to making sure that data gets out to their students whether it's difficult or not," she said. "It might actually be harder than it was in the past, because of the economy.

"West Virginia is so dependent on some of the fossil fuels that people associate with climate change.

"If your emotions are linked to your livelihood or your home life, there are always values tied to that. With kids, if you give them all the information, they can start to understand when they're fairly young and decide what they believe," she said. "It doesn't have to be a scary thing."

Thousands of teachers in West Virginia have started implementing new lessons in other subjects, as well, using the Next Generation Content Standards and Objectives, which align with "Common Core." The Common Core is a unified set of curriculum standards that most states have agreed to teach students.

By fall 2014, West Virginia students in grades 3 to 12 will have made the change.

Strong's solution to the environmental-teaching dilemma is to let the data and the facts lead the discussion, and then hand it over to the students to make their own decisions from there. However, when it comes to issues such as global warming, not everyone chooses to accept the same data.

"The approach that I learned to teach my students was where you weigh not only benefits of a particular fuel, but also the cost -- a cost-benefit analysis. Even high school students need to understand nothing is a panacea," she said. "You have to be scientific about it, but you also have to show all points of view. I think we sell kids short sometimes by not letting them make up their own minds."

Regardless of people's political beliefs, Strong supports the new science standards because she often sees major intellectual gaps about climate issues, not only in adolescents but in adults, too.

Two-thirds of students in the United States say they're not learning much about climate change at all, according to the National Center for Science Education.

"All it would take is there to be some groundwork laid in the schools so that you could have an informed citizenry. That's really all we're going for with any science standards," Strong said. "So [students] can make good decisions, vote and contribute to the conversation, instead of just going on emotions.

"When people say that the data's flawed in climate change, that's not true," she said. "There's enough valid documentation to merit that it is changing, and it is very likely to man's influence."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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