Environment
4:35 pm
Tue May 7, 2013

Filling In The Gap On Climate Education In Classrooms

Originally published on Wed May 8, 2013 2:50 pm

The auditorium at James Blake High School in Silver Spring, Md., is packed when Cy Maramangalam strolls onstage, sporting jeans and a shaved head.

"All right, how's everyone doing today?" he says to rousing cheers. It feels as if he's about to introduce a hot new band, but Maramangalam is with the Alliance for Climate Education, or ACE, and he's here to talk climate change. In the past few years, the nonprofit has put on multimedia presentations for more than 1 million students across the country. Think of it as Al Gore for Gen Y.

"Check this out," Maramangalam tells the students, as cartoon characters and graphs dance on a giant screen behind him. He explains that carbon dioxide levels are higher than they've ever been in 800,000 years, and that this is driving up the globe's thermostat.

"Jacking up the temperature toward this point should be freaking people out," he says. "But it's happening quietly."

'A Part Of Science'

ACE aims to fill a big gap. Polls show most U.S. students learn little about climate change at school, and even many adults have a fuzzy notion of what causes it.

For the first time, new K-12 science standards issued in April include climate change. But the standards, written by a consortium of science and education groups in consultation with 26 states, are only voluntary and could take years to roll out. So Maramangalam hopes to bring kids up to speed fast on a topic that scientists say must be urgently addressed.

"You've inherited a country that's all about living large," Maramangalam tells the students, his voice swelling. He says each person takes up not only the space occupied by their home and school, but also land in Iowa to grow their food, in Brazil and China to make all their "stuff," and in the Middle East to get fuel to drive around.

"Can you believe that the average American teenager uses about 21 football fields of Earth's resources to live?" Maramangalam says.

Now and then, teachers or parents will push back on these presentations, saying climate change is too controversial or too political. Some schools won't invite the group at all. But Blake High's biology teacher, Colleen Roots, says she sought out ACE because many students don't learn about climate change in any of their classes.

"It's a part of science and a part of education that is lacking in the curriculum right now," she says. "No one has changed the curriculum in far too many years."

'A Right To Know'

In the auditorium, the students are rapt even as Maramangalam lays out complicated scientific concepts: the greenhouse effect, carbon sinks, the correlation between carbon dioxide and temperature. The presentation also pulls no punches when it describes how the world may look later this century.

"Economists predict that climate change will cost our world trillions of dollars each year in damages and threaten food and water supplies in communities around the world," a somber narrator intones.

It's heavy stuff, and purposefully so.

"They're going to be the generation to feel the impacts [of climate change] hardest and first," says Matt Lappe, ACE's education director. "And so in some sense we target high-schoolers, and young people in general, because they really have a right to know climate science."

After the presentation, some students do seem a little shellshocked.

"It was kind of scary," says senior Danielle Snowden. "I didn't realize that it was that big of an issue. I just thought, you know, we should do better. But it's like, we have to do better."

Junior Nicole Lertora nods in agreement. "I want to go home and unplug my charger right now!" she laughs.

In fact, the ACE presentation turns upbeat at the end, suggesting things kids can do to cut down on all that space they take up. Afterward, Maramangalam meets with a dozen students to brainstorm ways to reduce their school's carbon footprint. One says kids can carpool. Another suggests replacing the cafeteria's Styrofoam trays with washable ones.

ACE will foster those who want to become environmental leaders. Some have even expanded carbon-cutting projects beyond their own community. But mostly, education director Matt Lappe says, these presentations are designed to get kids talking about climate change.

"The long-term goal of this project — and we hope that it's not too long term, but relatively short term — is that we really start to shift the conversation, and shift the culture, about climate change," he says.

And that, he says, could have an impact well beyond the classroom.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Most American teens say they learn little to nothing about climate change in school, though its effects will have a big impact on their future. One group has been trying to fill this gap in the curriculum.

As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, they aim to make climate science cool.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: The auditorium at James Blake High School in Silver Spring, Maryland is packed. On stage, a giant screen and a young man with jeans and a shaved head.

CY MARAMANGALAM: All right, how's everyone doing today? Good.

AUDIENCE: Good.

MARAMANGALAM: All right, yay.

LUDDEN: Cy Maramangalam is with the Alliance for Climate Education, or ACE. The non-profit has put on this multimedia presentation to more than a million students across the country in the past few years. Think of it as Al Gore for Gen Y.

MARAMANGALAM: A while back, scientists discovered that the Earth has a sort of giant thermostat that controls the temperature of the planet. And these days, that thermostat is being jacked up, way up.

LUDDEN: Why? Because he tells students of you and all the space you take up. Not just your houses and schools, but space in Iowa to grow your food, in Brazil and China to make all your stuff.

MARAMANGALAM: Can you believe that the average American teenager uses about 21 football fields of the Earth's resources to live?

LUDDEN: Now and then, teachers or parents will push back on these presentations, saying climate change is too controversial, too political. Some schools don't invite the group at all. But Blake biology teacher Colleen Roots sought out ACE. She says too many students don't learn about climate change in any of their classes.

COLLEEN ROOTS: It's a part of science and a part of education that is lacking in the curriculum right now. No one has changed the curriculum in far too many years.

(APPLAUSE)

MARAMANGALAM: Are you guys getting it? OK, so...

LUDDEN: In the auditorium, the cartoon characters and graphs on the big screen are grounded in solid science. And the students are rapt, even when presenter Maramangalam lays out complicated scientific concepts and when a video warns that this century could see millions of species go extinct, millions of people become climate refugees.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Economists predict that climate change will cost our world trillions of dollars each year in damages and threaten food and water supplies in communities around the world.

LUDDEN: It's heavy stuff. But Matt Lappe, ACE's education director, says teens need to know.

MATT LAPPE: They're going to be the generation to feel the impacts hardest and first. And so in some sense, we target high schoolers and young people in general, because they really have a right to know climate science.

LUDDEN: After the presentation, Danielle Snowden and Nicole Lertora are a little shellshocked.

DANIELLE SNOWDEN: It was kind of scary. I didn't realize that it was that big of an issue. I just thought, you know, we should do better, we should - but it's like, we have to do better.

NICOLE LERTORA: Well, I want to go home and unplug my charger right now.

(LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: In fact, the ACE presentation turns upbeat at the end, suggesting things kids can do to cut down on all that space they take up. Afterward, Maramangalam meets with those interested.

MARAMANGALAM: So, why don't we go around and introduce yourselves...

LUDDEN: A dozen students brainstorm on ways to reduce their school's carbon footprint, like in the cafeteria.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: We really need to get some reusable trays. Like, it's pretty ridiculous.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: Or if you get plastic ones that you can wash.

LUDDEN: ACE will foster those who want to become environmental leaders. But mostly, education director Matt Lappe says these presentations get kids talking about climate change.

LAPPE: The long-term goal of this project - and we hope that it's not too long-term, but relatively short term - is that we really start to shift the conversation and shift the culture about climate change.

LUDDEN: And that, he says, could have an impact well beyond the classroom.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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