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The next generation is going to live through climate change's effects. They are learning these effects now in classrooms across the state.

Creative Commons photo by Kristin Nador

By Ava Garcia

They stand in line near the front of the square. Grasping paper copies of their speeches or cuing up a digital version on their phone, the students keep busy while they wait their turn to step up to the podium.


They are here on a mission. It's Environmental Day at the Arizona State Capitol, and students from high schools around the state are speaking their minds about the environmental issues most important to them. When Tucson teacher Oscar Medina introduces them—some as individuals, some as a duo or trio—the students come up to the podium set up in the capitol’s Rose Garden. Around them, dozens of fellow environmental activists smile encouragingly.


Sheila Scanlan watches approvingly as three of her students take the podium to talk about renewable energy. Scanlan teaches earth science and AP Environmental Science at Highland High School in Gilbert.


"I felt like this was a good time to help my students to take all the basic science topics and see how in real life how change really does take place, what it does systematically to create policies and laws that then support addressing environmental concerns," she said.

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A student takes notes during Sheila Scanlan's class at Highland High School in Gilbert, Arizona. Photo by Ava Garcia.

Scanlan sees Environmental Day as an important way to show students what climate action involves. It's part of her mission. As a science teacher in a public high school, she's at the forefront of teaching the next generation about climate change and what it means for their future.


"I think young people today are our only hope. I think they're really worried," Scanlan said in a phone interview a week after Environmental Day. “The students that we saw at Environmental Day, those kids are our hope and our future, and my job is to make sure that they know.”


The next generations are the ones who will live through the coming impacts of climate change. As they move through the school system, students today have a chance to learn why the world around them is changing and how it will affect their lives in the future.

New standards for updated science

The students aren't the only ones growing more receptive to climate change; education standards are, too. The Arizona Department of Education updated its K-12 science standards last fall. Among those changes was the inclusion of more up-to-date information about climate change.


"In the case of climate change, there's been a lot more research over the last 10 years," said Stefan Swiat, Arizona Department of Education public information officer. "We need to update these standards to reflect the evolution of our research."


Previous standards limited explicit mentions of climate change to one page and one section, while the new standards include climate change—and how humans may have a role in creating it—throughout several sections of the high school standards.


One cross-cutting concept in the standards, Essential HS.E1U3.14, points out that human activity can affect the environment: "Changes in the atmosphere due to human activity have increased carbon dioxide concentrations and thus affect climate.... Global climate models are often used to understand the process of climate change because these changes are complex and can occur slowly over Earth’s history."


As explicit as these standards are, last fall they were almost rewritten to remove nearly all allusions to climate change. Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas, who held the position at the time the standards were being written, put forth her own set of standard recommendations, drawn from private conservative Christian college Hillsdale College. The Hillsdale standards, the Barney Charter School Initiative's Scope and Sequence, are partially based on standards from the Core Knowledge Foundation and do not mention climate change. They mention "carbon dioxide and global warming theory."

"Changes in the atmosphere due to human activity have increased carbon dioxide concentrations and thus affect climate"

--Excerpt from latest Arizona K-12 science standards

With two sets of standards to choose from, the state board ultimately decided in favor of using the science standards proposed by a committee made up of Arizona educators. These chosen standards included updated information about climate change.


Current Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, who was elected in November 2018, said in an emailed statement that "Climate change is affecting our planet as we speak, and the science explaining it is clear and convincing. A high-quality education in the 21st Century should include information on climate change and its growing effects.”


Schools are expected to implement these standards beginning in the 2019-2020 school year, according to the State Department of Education's transition and implementation plan for the Arizona science standards.


"I would just like to assure Arizonans climate change is and will be taught in the classroom," Swiat said.


Standards are not the same as curriculum. Standards are what students need to learn by the end of their grade level, and are the umbrella under which curriculum is decided by school districts. Curriculum, decided by local school districts, is the program that dictates how students learn those standards.


Scanlan, who has taught environmental science since 1996, thinks students should learn more about environmental and earth science.


"The curriculum should mandate environmental and earth science education across the board and not just do lip-service by putting a two three-week ecology unit in and then forging on," she said.


Scanlan advocates for environmental literacy, where students are aware of what happens in their environment and what affects it. People want to drink clean water and breathe clean air, and they need to be educated on these topics, she said.


Scanlan's not the only one who thinks that. Arizona State Senator Juan Mendez, D-26, is collaborating with student leaders about the possibility of introducing a bill to call for increased climate change literacy in schools. Mendez represents constituents in northwest Mesa, part of south Phoenix, north Tempe and the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community.

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Sen. Juan Mendez speaks at Environmental Day at the Arizona State Capitol. Photo by Ava Garcia

The idea for a bill sprung from a conversation Mendez had with high school student Aditi Arayana during Environmental Day at the State Capitol. Arayana, a junior at BASIS Phoenix High School, attended the event with several of her classmates to represent Zero Hour, a youth activist group calling for climate change action.


Arayana said she asked Mendez if he was going to introduce any legislation about climate education. From there, the two decided to meet to talk about ideas and to find other groups with which to work.


"I'm still figuring out exactly the logistics of it, but I think it's a really important bill, an idea that needs to be looked at," Arayana said. "And I'm glad to work with people who are spearheading that movement."


If such a bill became law, it would then go to the education department's state board, where members would check the current standards to see if there are any discrepancies between them and the law, Swiat said. A law like that can "absolutely influence" the standards, Swiat said.


Mendez said the environmental literacy bill would be similar to the media literacy bill he proposed earlier this year, which proposed requiring the Department of Education to identify and recommend instructional materials and resources for teaching students media literacy. That bill, SB 1283, had a second read in the Senate but was never assigned to committee.


Mendez said planning for the climate change literacy bill is in its very early stages and would likely continue for the next year as he continues to discuss the idea with stakeholders.

Climate change in the classroom

Scanlan teaches her students about the science behind climate change. In her lab-style classroom, adorned with student-made posters calling for more environmental sustainability, she teaches students about greenhouse gases and energy consumption.


She tries to get the students to engage with the science in their own lives. One Tuesday in early March, she walked students through calculating the energy use of household electronics and appliances. At the end of the lesson, she offered students an extra-credit opportunity: Bring in your electricity bill to look at how much energy your household uses.


Her climate change lessons haven't gone without resistance. Just over a decade ago, during the Bush administration, students weren't as open to learning about climate change, Scanlan said. She recalls that a voluntary showing of An Inconvenient Truth after school one day in 2007 prompted phone calls from parents.


"When I first had to teach [climate change], there was so much resistance to global warming and all that I had to spend a significant time getting them past their bias," Scanlan said.


But much of that has changed over the years. Now, she said only a few of the 140 kids she teaches have "negative views" of climate change. With the realities of climate change starting to hit, she has realized how it will affect students in the future.


"The sad thing is as much as I see [climate change happening], they see it, and they're scared," Scanlan said. "It's a scary world for kids."

Interest in climate change literacy grows

A similar conversation is happening on the national stage. Climate change education isn't quite a radical idea: Nationally, 79 percent of Americans surveyed believed that schools should teach about global warming, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication's 2018 Climate Opinion Map.


In February of this year, Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey introduced the Climate Change Education Act, which calls for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to establish a Climate Change Education Program. Mendez said he would like to model a state bill off of this U.S. Senate bill for Arizona.


The U.S. Senate bill's proposed Climate Change Education Program, which would receive $20 million a year in federal funding, would aim to increase the understanding of climate change effects and solutions and would create a grant program to support programs for K-12 climate education. The program would be overseen by the Office of Education of NOAA.


NOAA already provides climate literacy resources. Its website provides an entire section on Teaching Climate, aiming to provide teachers with the resources—visuals, videos, experiments, tools—they need to teach their students climate science.


Frank Niepold leads the education section for As part of his job, he works with partner organizations and state and local governments around the country to support climate change education programs. A former teacher himself, Niepold also hosts teacher trainings.


"To really do what we have to do on this issue requires a much more educated, much more engaged and much more informed public than historically we had with other issues where scientists could deliver that information to decision makers," Niepold said. "Decision makers would take that in, and they would build policy, and then they would start making progress on the solution. This one's different. It requires much more active citizenry."


He said he's seen a change in the way climate change is threaded throughout education since NOAA released its first guide to climate literacy to the public in 2008. Now, he said, people learn about climate change earlier, and it's branched out beyond earth science into all educational disciplines.


He said students now often are looking beyond the science and seeking to solve the problems they learn about.


"People thought it's a bummer of a topic; it'll bum kids out," Niepold said. "Well, actually they want to learn this. They want to be prepared for the future. They want to have a voice in that future, and they want to elevate their ability to be useful in that."

Students speak out

Some of those students are like Gabrielle Ott, one of Scanlan's students who spoke at Environmental Day.

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One of Scanlan's students, Gabrielle Ott, speaks during Environmental Day at the Arizona State Capitol. Photo by Ava Garcia.

Ott, 16, took Scanlan's environmental science class last year and decided to take the AP version this year for college credit. She said the class opened her eyes to environmental issues. Now, those issues will influence her lifestyle choices and, once she reaches 18, how she will vote.


On Environmental Day, the sun kept shifting behind the clouds, but Ott's bright pink hair stood out no matter how the lighting changed when she stood at the podium.


Ott spoke about energy efficiency, an issue she said was especially important to her because she is concerned about the health effects of pollution.


"I would confidently say I'm worried for my future if clean energy does not come into the picture soon," Ott said in her speech.


Scanlan had assigned all her students to write a three-paragraph speech about an environmental issue. Ott cranked her speech out in one night, cramming in all the things she believes about clean energy. When Scanlan read her first sentence, Ott said, she asked her to speak at the Environmental Day event.


"It's very important for people my age to be acting out and be speaking out about these issues, because if we don't, then it's over. There's really no hope," Ott said. "You have to get change to happen at a certain point before it gets too late and it gets too complex."


Scanlan watched, clapping proudly afterward when her students finished speaking.


"I have hope in them," Scanlan said. "We do our job and teach them the facts, and they'll take it from here."

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