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Nebraska Teachers Are Piloting A Climate Science Curriculum — Using NASA Data

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

An NPR survey of American teachers last year found that 86% believe schools should teach climate science. The teachers also said they had trouble finding good tools to teach it. A NASA climate scientist is working with Nebraska schools to develop a curriculum that lets students get their hands on the same tools leading researchers use. Becca Costello of NET News reports.

BECCA COSTELLO, BYLINE: Science is clear that Earth's climate is changing, mostly caused by human activity, but there's still a lot of skepticism about it and how to teach it in public schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL MEYER: Global warming is a hoax. It is junk science.

COSTELLO: This is Paul Meyer, a former school board member in an Omaha suburb in 2017. He was asking the state board of education not to add climate change to new education standards.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MEYER: I had - one of my goals was to make sure that our kids were taught in an honest and truthful manner. I did not want them brainwashed or indoctrinated with falsehoods.

COSTELLO: Sentiment like that frustrates climate scientists, like NASA's Mark Chandler, who uses sophisticated computer models to predict what's going to happen to the climate in the next 10, 20 or even a hundred years.

MARK CHANDLER: Whenever there's a tool that most people don't understand, they can pull out the whole card of, oh, it's just those geeky scientists doing something that none of us understand.

COSTELLO: So a few years ago, Chandler started talking with his friend Cory Forbes, a science education researcher and professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Forbes knew public school teachers had a hard time helping students understand climate science. Forbes says the two wrote a proposal to develop climate science curriculum and got a grant from the National Science Foundation.

CORY FORBES: We're focused on putting authentic scientific tools in the hands of teachers and the students, which is not something that they typically, you know, have access to.

COSTELLO: The curriculum is designed to teach students about climate change by giving them access to the same computer models Mark Chandler is using at NASA.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARY BURKE MORROW: So, guys, let's go ahead and put phones away if we've got phones out so we'll start.

COSTELLO: They're trying it out in classrooms like Mary Burke Morrow's in Lincoln, Neb. She helps the teens in her earth science class work with a web-based interface called EzGCM - that stands for Global Climate Modeling. Chandler built it so anyone could operate and understand the complicated modeling process.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BURKE MORROW: What do you think you want to use for a climate variable for this one?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Snow and ice cover and evaporation.

COSTELLO: More than a thousand Lincoln Public School students have used the program over the last three years. Morrow says there's no agenda other than asking students to reach their own conclusions.

BURKE MORROW: It's more of a geo-inquiry process, where, rather than just kind of being given the information, they notice, wonder and start driving their own questions.

COSTELLO: Morrow, who's been teaching climate change for the past decade, previously had to develop her own lessons as she went along. She says her students respond much better to hands-on projects like EzGCM.

BURKE MORROW: It allows the students to do things that are, like, way above the capacity of, like, a normal classroom, so it was really exciting.

COSTELLO: The team developing the climate modeling curriculum is recruiting more Nebraska teachers for summer workshops on how to use it in their own classrooms next school year.

ANDRES HENRIQUEZ: I'm so excited that you all in Nebraska are doing this. This is so exciting.

COSTELLO: Andres Henriquez is an education researcher who helped the National Research Council develop Next Generation Science Standards now being used in 20 states.

HENRIQUEZ: And I think teachers are hungry for this kind of work. They're really hungry for this kind of curriculum. There's just not a whole lot of models out there.

COSTELLO: When the National Science Foundation grant ends next year, the climate modeling curriculum being developed in Nebraska will be available for sale to classrooms anywhere in the world.

For NPR News, I'm Becca Costello.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEON INDIAN'S "SLUMLORD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.