Teaching Climate Change With Web Resources

climate change webquest

While it can be a touchy subject in some schools, I truly believe climate change is an important issue we should be teaching our students.  It’s pretty much the biggest environmental issue of our time, and it’s something that unfortunately the future generations are going to be the ones dealing with! Plus, if you’re teaching an NGSS-aligned curriculum, it’s a part of your standards.

MS-ESS3-5. Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century. HS-ESS2-4. Use a model to describe how variations in the flow of energy into and out of Earth’s systems result in changes in climate. HS-ESS3-5. Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth’s systems.

Introducing Climate Change

I have found that the best way to introduce climate change is with the data itself. Whenever I’m teaching, my goal is always for students to discover the ideas on their own.  Climate change is no different.  While I want my students to be able to answer questions like, “What is happening to our climate?” “What is causing these changes?” and “How will that impact life on Earth?” — it’s not my job to tell them the answers.  My job is to provide the opportunities for them to discover those understandings themselves.  I do that by carefully framing activities to develop their understanding of each concept and using cohesive storylines to tie it all together.  

When we begin our unit, our goal is to answer the question, “What is happening to our climate?”  In my high school Earth Systems course, this unit was part of a larger instructional sequence I titled, “Climate And Atmosphere: Then and Now.”  We actually start the sequence by understanding how Earth’s atmosphere developed and how the climate changed over the billions of years the Earth has existed.  Then, we move into how the climate is changing today and what that means for us here on Earth.

To guide students to answer the question, “What is happening to our climate?” I focus on the Science and Engineering Practice of Analyzing and Interpreting Data and the Crosscutting Concept of Patterns.

Utilizing Climate Change Web Resources

I have found NASA’s Climate Change: Vital Signs Of The Planet an amazing resource for pulling visual data for student use.  At this point in the unit, I don’t focus on the carbon connection. That’s not the point. My goal, again, is for students to just identify, “Our planet is warming. Our climate is changing.”  That’s why I choose pieces of evidence like global temperature rise, shrinking ice sheets (I love to use photos of changes for this one!), glacial retreat  (again, pictures!), declining Arctic sea ice (pictures!), and changes in snow cover. I save information on sea level rise, increases in extreme events, and ocean acidification for the last sequence where students discover the answer to, “How will that impact life on Earth?”

Supporting Students “Analyzing and Interpreting Data”

analyzing and interpreting data ngssI use a lot of supports when my students are exploring data.  I typically provide analysis worksheets that help guide their observations and thinking as they move through the Explore phase, working to make meaning from the material.  When working with graphs or maps specifically, I often use the data analysis strategy, “What I See, What It Means.” You can download that resource by clicking the image to the right. 

From Explore To Explain

After students have had the opportunity to explore the data themselves and make sense of it independently or in small groups, we discuss their ideas to reach consensus as a class.  I might guide the discussion with questions like, “What did you notice in [this resource]? What do you think it means? What is it telling us about our climate? How does it connect to [this resource]?  What conclusions can we draw about our climate as a whole?”” My goal is always to connect the content ideas to the examples and observations students are making.  This discussion is not a time for me to tell students what to see or what to think.  My job is to help them put the puzzle pieces together.

When we have come to a consensus that our planet is warming and our climate is changing, I introduce the terms global warming and climate change.  They have already discovered the concepts themselves. I’m just giving them the scientific vocabulary to talk about it.

Continuing The 5E Sequence

We follow these activities with additional Explain activities, designed to solidify their understanding, and Elaborate activities, designed to expand what they have learned.  With my high school classes, I previously took advantage of the EPA’s “A Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change” website to expand on student understanding, but that site has unfortunately been archived by our administration.  Luckily, NASA’s Climate Kids website is still up and running, and while it’s target audience definitely veers toward the younger side, it still works as a valuable resource for introducing climate change.

climate change webquestThe site actually delves deeper into the additional questions we would cover in this unit — What’s causing our climate to change? How will it impact life?  And for that reason, I would recommend incorporating Explore activities that address those two questions before completing the entire webquest.

There are a lot of hands-on labs you can use to help students understand the greenhouse effect, albedo effect, rising sea level, and all that. You could also incorporate data comparisons of the change in Earth’s temperature correlated to the change in atmospheric carbon concentrations (Cause and Effect, Crosscutting Concepts!) and labs or virtual simulations that examine the effects of increasing carbon concentrations on coral reefs and other ocean life. The key to adapting these to your Explore phase is to really remove as much information as you can in order to give students the opportunity to really “see what happens” themselves.

When you start using this “explore before explain” approach, you will really be amazed by how much students can puzzle out on their own. And really, that’s what the NGSS is all about.

If you are anything like me, transitioning to the NGSS can be totally overwhelming.  Teaching is hard as it is – you’re busy keeping up with the “normal” lessons day to day and week to week, plus grading, meetings, IEPs, behavior management, so on and so forth. I get it. Who has the time or energy to figure out all that goes into these new standards and their impact on your curriculum, let alone what it means for your teaching!

Well, I’m happy to say there IS an easier way. You don’t HAVE to muddle through everything, and you definitely don’t have to do it alone!

Imagine feeling confident that the curriculum you designed is actually aligned to the standards, that your units incorporate the three dimensions and engage your students in Science and Engineering Practices that matter. Imagine classes full of students who take ownership of their learning, who thrive on “figuring it out” and “puzzling through it” and come to learn the content through discovery.  Imagine days where you DON’T have to stand in front of the class, battling for their attention, delivering boring lectures and notes, printing worksheet after worksheet, and wasting tons of time on review and reteaching — only to have your students fail to perform anyway. Imagine learning that sticks, and engaging activities (that you may already be doing!) but that lead to true understanding.  It’s not magic, and it doesn’t necessarily come easy, but it IS possible.  

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