The developer of the Heartland Institute's school curriculum on climate change plans to create a number of 40-minute lessons that can be used by skeptical teachers, beginning in the fourth grade, to raise questions about humans' impact on things like weather and rising temperatures.
The lesson plans will cut across grade levels with about six sessions devoted to teaching high school students about the minority view that climate change is likely to have an insubstantial effect on things like drought, floods and hurricanes. Another lesson would emphasize the point of view that carbon dioxide is not a harmful pollutant but rather a key contributor to the world food supply.
"It's an interesting curriculum because we're looking at a topic and looking at every place through K-12 where it's touched on. And if there's a debate related to climate change for that topic, then we're going to explain the debate," said David Wojick, Heartland's curriculum consultant, in an interview. "And explaining the debate simply means presenting the different sides."
The controversial plan by Heartland, which rejects the idea that humans are contributing to significant changes in the atmosphere, ignited a firestorm of opposition from environmentalists, educators and climate scientists when it came to light last month. Heartland plans to spend at least $100,000 developing the materials, the funding for which has been pledged by the group's "Anonymous Donor."
It comes as the National Research Council and other bodies are preparing to update science education standards for the first time since 1996. Enhanced climate instruction ranks among perhaps the most sensitive changes to the standards, following the politicization of climate change after Congress' effort to cap carbon dioxide emissions in 2009.
Separately, Wojick believes climate materials developed for teachers in 2009 by the U.S. Global Change Research Program portray a one-sided description of the man-made impacts that he says do not exist. Although thousands of scientists and educators contributed to the development of the materials, called "Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science," Wojick described them as part of the "dangerous AGW school of thought." He was referring to anthropogenic global warming.
"That stuff is wrong," Wojick said yesterday. "I mean, that's teaching one side of the debate. In fact, if you look through the Climate Literacy stuff, there's no indication of a debate. The concept of a debate is not raised. So you obviously can't use that stuff to teach the debate."
The emphasis on debate, however, leaves some wondering if Wojick is preparing materials for a political science class, rather than one on Earth science. Experts say climate lessons provide opportunities for students to access, analyze and understand information related to things like the effects of warmer temperatures on precipitation. Learning about uncertainties inherent in computer models, measurements and instruments is part of the process, they say.
But several people working on climate education issues expressed concern that Wojick's curriculum could portray differences of opinion on climate as being equally balanced between believers and nonbelievers, when in fact a large majority of scientists agree that humans are warming the atmosphere.
"It depends on what you're balancing. If you're talking about human response and talking about different approaches to responding to [climate change] or not to respond, that's one thing," said Frank Niepold, the climate education coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who oversaw development of the Climate Literacy principles. "But if you're talking about balancing the science, then I have some questions. I don't think it's appropriate about balancing the science, because the issues about 'Is global warming happening or not?' or 'Are humans contributing to it or not?' -- those are false dichotomies."
"What I'm hearing [Wojick] say is potentially those false dichotomies," Niepold added.
Still, Heartland's lessons are being constructed during a period of unease among some teachers. Many are unprepared to teach the multidisciplinary nature of climate change because of lacking opportunities for professional training and a shortage of teaching materials, experts say.
In a poll of 555 teachers released in January by the National Earth Science Teachers Association, 47 percent of respondents said they teach "both sides" of the climate debate because "there is validity" to each side's argument.
"In these surveys, there are sometimes comments from teachers saying things like, 'Well, you know, I just want to tell [students] both sides and let them make up their minds about what they believe,'" said Roberta Johnson, the group's executive director, who has a doctorate in geophysics. "Now, that's disheartening, to think there are teachers who really don't understand where the bulk of the evidence is."
"But that said, it does look like there is a significant fraction of teachers who are using that approach," she added. "There's also, I think, a group of teachers -- hopefully a small group -- who are teaching about climate change as if it's completely a hoax."
Not trusting evidence
That is perplexing, Johnson said, because surveys show that teachers have a firmer grasp on climate science than the American population. It also cannot be explained exclusively by state standards or school boards that encourage teachers to touch on skeptical viewpoints. About 12 percent of teachers say their administrations pressure them to explore the minority view, she said.
But pressure can also come from parents -- and even students.
Dave Rodriguez, who teaches high school Earth science to advanced eighth graders in Tallahassee, Fla., remembers one student saying, "I don't believe in global warming."
"It just struck me, because you normally think of that kind of statement being attached to something else," said Rodriguez, who is taking a two-year break from the classroom to develop math and science curriculum. "You hear that. And I've heard it a few times since. It's not about trusting the evidence or accepting the evidence; it's coming into it with a preconceived notion."
Tamara Ledley hopes to confront those challenges. As a scientist who spent 15 years researching the effects of sea ice and ice sheets on the climate, she is now developing a series of laboratory lessons to help high school students understand climate change. The point is not to convince them it is happening, she said, but to teach them about the "content of science."
Some labs will use research data collected by scientists using satellites or ground mechanisms. Another lesson requires students to experiment with floating ice and land ice, to mimic results showing that sea ice contributes less than land-borne ice melt to sea-level rise.
"I think that there's a tremendous need for these kinds of curriculum. Most of the sciences that students and even teachers have taken have been very disciplinary-focused," said Ledley, who leads the Center for Science Teaching and Learning at TERC, an educational research nonprofit. "Climate change and Earth system science are cross-disciplinary. The system evolves based on interactions of different components ... so you can't just think about atmospheric science, and you can't just think about oceanography, and you just can't think about the geophysical system. You have to think about how it all works together."
An expert on the climate 'debate'
In some ways, Wojick is trying to fill that same space. He also believes that teachers are hungry for material that will help them teach -- and understand -- the complexities of climate change. But his lessons are unlikely to look at areas with strong evidence linking warming temperatures to things like intensifying precipitation.
His expertise is not in climate science, but rather, he said, in identifying interpretations of evidence that he believes mainstream scientists have failed to confront. He develops systems and theories to communicate complex material, described in one of his bios as the "practice of scientific knowledge diffusion." He has a doctorate in the history and philosophy of science.
"I'm an expert on the [climate] debate, so I think I'll try to put something out there so it gets taught correctly," he said.
Wojick has reviewed a number of curriculum standards and cataloged the topics that are taught in K-12 science education. From those, he is creating a list of topics that portray what he says is a public debate on climate science.
"Floods is on our list," he said. "Droughts and floods are among the three or four big supposed threats in catastrophic AGW, and there's a lot of controversy about whether we're going to see more floods or fewer floods and also about what the data is on floods. So floods gets a lesson. It'll be a 40-minute lesson plan. We'll do one class on the controversy over what's going to happen with floods."
Other lessons will be developed for hurricanes, droughts, the accuracy of climate models, whether CO2 is a pollutant and the human impact on climate.
He acknowledges that some of his lessons represent perhaps 20 percent of climate scientists, though some polls show that an even stronger majority of researchers believe that humans are causing changes to the climate.
Asked if his curriculum would stipulate that imbalance, Wojick indicated that a lesson could be developed on polling.
"Well, that's going to be interesting. At some point, yeah," he said of making that point clear. "That's a good one. For that, we're going to look at the social -- I don't know anything about the social science curriculum -- but I assume that the concept of polling and public controversy and political controversy is taught over there."