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Evolution advocate turns to climate

Education centre known for battling creationists aims to help science teachers convey understanding of global warming.

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Students walking out of classrooms when global warming is mentioned; teachers pressured to change lesson plans to avoid the subject or portray it as speculative rather than a matter of scientific consensus. For Eugenie Scott, the stories and anecdotes fit a familiar pattern. Scott is executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) an organization based in Oakland, California, with a reputation for doggedly defending the teaching of evolution in US classrooms. But a growing impression that climate science is facing a similar struggle, together with entreaties from educators and textbook authors, has helped to convince her that the NCSE should expand its mandate to include the politically charged issue of global warming.

“I think we can make an important contribution,” says Scott. “If teachers understand that there is a place that they can go to for help, we can use some of the expertise that we’ve gained over the years dealing with evolution to apply to this related problem.”

A recent survey in the United States suggests that there is indeed a problem. From August to October 2011, the nation’s National Earth Science Teachers Association (NESTA) queried Earth- and space-science teachers about their experiences of climate-change education. Depending on the region, 25–30% of respondents reported that students, parents, administrators or other community members had argued with them that climate change is not happening or that it is not the result of human activity. Some school boards and state legislators have threatened to require educators to ‘teach the controversy’ about climate change — a term coined in relation to evolution that amounts to presenting a scientific theory as one of various possible viewpoints.

Many of the teachers surveyed have strong science backgrounds and professional ex­perience related to climate change. But “when you look at what the teachers are facing across the country, it goes way beyond science”, says Roberta Johnson, executive director of NESTA, based in Boulder, Colorado. “It goes into areas of political debate.”

In a 16 January announcement, the NCSE says that it will offer support to educators facing ideological opposition when teaching climate change, providing advice on how to present the underlying science. The strategy mirrors its approach to evolution, which includes clarifying for students why science is an appropriate tool for understanding the natural world. “This perspective is also important in helping people to understand the reasons why scientists overwhelmingly accept climate change,” the NCSE says in a mission statement describing the new effort.

“When you look at what the teachers are facing across the country, it goes way beyond science.”

The statement also says that the NCSE will not take a position on what, if anything, should be done to counteract global warming or mitigate its effects. “What to do about it ranges widely and gets outside of the strict science and into policy issues in which many, many variables are going to have to be considered,” says Scott. “We are not a policy think tank; we don’t have expertise in this area.”

But such policy neutrality may not prevent science teachers from being challenged in the classroom. “The core issue is not whether global warming is happening, or whether humans are involved, but whether it is a crisis,” says James Taylor, a research fellow at the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Chicago, Illinois, that opposes the regulation of carbon emissions (see Nature 475, 440–441; 2011).

Scott acknowledges that there is more to teaching climate change than explaining the science clearly. “We need to be aware of the fact that people are very emotionally concerned about these issues,” she says. If people feel threatened ideologically, politically or economically, “all the science in the world won’t convince them”. She adds that the NCSE will also help teachers to understand the views of parents and others who oppose the teaching of climate change.

“Knowing the motivations behind a parent’s views can help a teacher come up with a solution or response that might assuage that parent’s concerns and let their kid remain in the classroom,” says Scott.

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