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Teaching climate change in New York’s rural schools

Last week, released part one of a two-part series on climate change. “The politicization of climate change,” spurred by my conversation with Dr. Joseph Henderson, lecturer in the Environment and Society Department at Paul Smith’s College, addressed some of the reasons behind the politicization of climate change in in the United States. It also tackled the psychological factors at play in climate change denial.

Now, part two of this series will focus on the findings of a paper titled “What is climate change education in Trump Country?” co-authored by Dr. Henderson, Kevin Meuwissen, associate professor and chair of teaching and curriculum at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, and David Long, associate professor of middle grades and secondary education at Morehead State University.

This article will address how climate change is taught in rural schools, the limitations of the education system, and how framing climate change teachings through the lens of students’ own backgrounds could be key in bridging the divide on climate change opinion.

Rural areas as places of extraction

Henderson grew up in Chipmunk, New York, a small blip on the map within the Town of Allegany in Cattaraugus County. He was raised working class with an active oil well right across the street from his home. His interest in engaging with students from rural areas stems partially from that upbringing.

The paper he co-authored focuses on how climate change is taught in rural schools with specific case studies in Eastern Kentucky and the Adirondack region of New York State. Henderson’s position at Paul Smith’s College of the Adirondacks provides him with a unique opportunity in higher education: to engage with students from rural areas on a daily basis.

“A lot of my students, many of whom are rural poor and grew up in rural areas, come to our school because they’re interested in nature and environmental issues,” explained Henderson. “Rural areas are spaces of extraction, places where resources get extracted and used elsewhere in the suburbs or urban areas. If you look at like a lot of rural Western New York, you have salt extraction and natural gas extraction. Many of my students, when I have these conversations [about climate change] with them, are very aware of the fact that rural areas are places where resources are taken from.”

Climate education differs state-by-state

Henderson’s paper, co-authored with Meuwissen and Long, found that “teaching about climate change in conservative contexts demands specificity to particular cultural-psychological conditions, including historical legacies related to patterns of natural resource extraction.” It also acknowledges the shortcomings in American education on climate change today, like uneven curriculum standards state-by-state and teacher bias.

“There are some really large, structural issues in American education that keep people from learning about climate change. First of all, it really depends on which state you’re in. If you’re in Oklahoma, where people have been fighting against the inclusion of climate change and the standards, you’re possibly not going to get any sort of education on climate change,” said Henderson. “Then, there’s an additional layer, which is that it depends on your teacher. If your teacher thinks it’s junk, they’re not likely to teach you [about climate change].”

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Lack of interdisciplinary education

The book Teaching Climate Change in the United States, edited by Henderson and Dr. Andrea Drewes, highlights the best practices in climate education by bringing together an analysis of case studies that feature educational programs across the U.S. Like the paper, it also addresses the challenges encountered in teaching about climate change. Henderson points to the lack of interdisciplinary programs in K-12 education as one such hurdle to overcome.

“It’s very hard for teachers in most schools to teach in an interdisciplinary fashion. Climate change is one of those topics that really needs science blended with social studies, government, and politics. How do you have a political conversation in a science class? Most science teachers are not trained to do that,” explained Henderson. “It’s much easier for me to do that in a college classroom because of the interdisciplinary nature of college. A lot of science teachers trained [in interdisciplinary teaching] avoid it because it’s uncomfortable, or they might avoid it because they think they’re going to get attacked by parents.”

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Bridging the climate education gap

With these challenges in mind, how do we begin to bridge the gap in climate change teachings and prepare students in rural areas for a future in which climate change issues will likely be at the forefront?

“I think one of the key things that people should know is just don’t be afraid to talk about climate change. It’s a really important topic and I think it’s something that young people specifically are very keyed in on,” said Henderson. “One of the things that I think is important for climate change education is that people focus on solutions and solutions at-scale. It can be stressful for people to learn about it. One of the things that we talked about in this paper is that you have to see how it’s going to impact your own life. Then, you have to make the connections to how other people are going to experience it as well.”

Henderson referenced the “mirrors and windows” metaphor used in the paper- the idea that students must first become familiar with how climate change affects their own community, then explore the ways in which climate change is impacting people from other places. For many students in rural areas, they have not had the experience required to think globally. Still, learning how to do so may help bring the issue out of the political realm and into the realm of tangible solutions.

To read part one of this two-part series on climate change, click here.