Science Teachers’ Grasp of Climate Change Is Found Lacking

Feb 11, 2016

Photo credit: Max Reed

By John Schwartz

Most science teachers in the United States spend some time on climate change in their courses, but their insufficient grasp of the science as well as political factors “may hinder effective teaching,” according to a nationwide survey of the profession.

The survey, described in the current issue of the journal Science, found that teachers spent little time on the topic — just one to two hours on average over an academic year.

“It’s clearly not enough time to really provide students with a good scientific understanding,” said Eric Plutzer, the lead author of the paper and a professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University.

Many teachers also provide misinformation about climate change, the survey found. The evidence that human activity is a major cause of recent climate change is overwhelming, but 30 percent of the 1,500 teachers surveyed said they emphasized that recent global warming “is likely due to natural causes,” while 12 percent said they did not emphasize human causes. Half of that 12 percent said they did not discuss any causes at all.

Close to a third of the teachers also reported conveying messages that are contradictory, emphasizing the scientific consensus on human causation and the idea that many scientists believe the changes have natural causes.

The authors of the paper suggested that those teachers “may wish to teach ‘both sides’ to accommodate values and perspectives that students bring to the classroom.” The survey also found, however, that only 4.4 percent of teachers said that they had faced overt pressure from parents, school administrators or the community to teach about climate change.

Professor Plutzer, who is the academic director of Pennsylvania State’s survey research center, said that he and his colleagues were surprised by the level of ignorance the teachers showed in the survey, especially in describing the current state of scientific consensus on the topic.


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