By Michaela Labriole.

A group of educators huddles around a paint tray. “Whose turn is it to be the storm this time?”

The designated “storm” pours water over a model city contained in the tray, while the other group members watch. Sponges representing things like parks or green roofs absorb the water. “We did it! Look! We prevented the trash from flowing into the river.”

While this might seem like an experiment about street trash or the water cycle, these teachers were actually investigating how climate change is impacting New York City and the many city systems local residents rely on. Rather than learning about climate change as a collection of discreet facts to be memorized, the educators in this professional development program learned to apply systems thinking to the complex topic of climate change impacts and solutions.

Staff from the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) facilitated this particular workshop as part of the Climate and Urban System Partnership (CUSP), a project between scientists and educators aimed at engaging city dwellers in climate change issues. The workshop participants explored the interplay between increased frequency of heavy rainstorms caused by climate change, an overloading of the wastewater system, and water management options afforded by green infrastructure projects.

One participant said of her workshop experience:

“(Prior to the workshop) When I thought about climate change, I thought about severe heat waves – you know, global warming. I didn’t think about rainstorms or street flooding. And I didn’t realize that we were already seeing effects of a changing climate. And I definitely had no idea how to fit this into my curriculum!”

This teacher is not alone. A recent report, published in Science, reveals that while a majority of teachers in the United States do teach about climate change, they spend, on average, just one to two hours per academic year on the topic. Additionally, a large percentage of the teachers included in the study were found to include incorrect or inaccurate information in their teachings about climate change.

A recent article in the New York Times notes that this level of confusion among educators may not be surprising. Many teachers didn’t have exposure to climate change information as part of their science education training and some educators may lack the confidence needed to successfully teach the subject matter fully.

Still, while climate change is not universally included in a standard curriculum, the importance of teaching about climate change is increasingly recognized and the topic is included in the new Next Generation Science Standards.

To address the findings of the report, it isn’t enough to simply provide teachers with more information about climate change. Traditionally, climate change has been taught using the information-deficit approach to education. Under this model, it is assumed that learners simply lack information about a topic, and that providing more information is sufficient to help people understand a concept.

While prevalent, the information-deficit model has been shown to be ineffective in teaching about climate change. In fact, in some cases, people feel so overwhelmed by the information, they simply ignore it (Moser and Dilling 2011).1

It’s time to move away from an information-deficit approach and embrace a systems thinking approach.

Systems thinking is the process of examining and understanding the various parts of a system and the interactions among these components. A systems thinking approach allows both teachers and students to see complex science concepts as part of a bigger picture.

For climate change education in particular, it’s important to take a step back and examine the impacts the changing climate has on all areas of our lives: local wildlife, flooding, public transit, water quality, etc. Similarly, what opportunities for solutions exist?

By taking a systems approach to climate change in teacher professional development, teachers are empowered to decide how the big ideas in climate change fit in with their curriculum.

NYSCI uses a system approach in its professional development workshops. The workshops combat misconceptions and help educators see climate change as a cross-disciplinary issue relevant to their lives and the lives of their students.

For example, as part of the CUSP project, NYSCI develops educational opportunities, like the paint tray stormwater runoff workshop, that help learners make connections between local climate change impacts and solutions, city systems, and their own personal interests and passions.

By understanding the complex interactions involved in a changing climate, teachers increase their own confidence in teaching about these intricate relationships, to evaluate climate change information they come across in the media, and to connect climate change content to things that are relevant to their students’ lives.

Systems thinking at NYSCI is not limited to teacher professional development workshops or even to programs about climate change. It is also a key component of events such as SUBMERGE, NYSCI’s annual marine science festival, or in experiences like NYSCI’s immersive sustainability exhibition, Connected Worlds.

1Moser, S.C., and Dilling, L. (2011). Communicating Climate Change: Closing The Science –Action Gap. The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (pp. 161-176). Eds. J.S. Dryzek, R.B. Norgaard, and D. Schlosberg. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

As manager of special projects for NYSCI, Michaela Labriole oversees NYSCI’s online programs for educators. Her expertise includes climate change education and programs that engage girls in STEM.