Climate & Social Justice

Climate of Change in Southern New England Classrooms

Teaching students about human impacts on the environment is becoming part of public school curricula, even if many of the schools still don’t recycle


Getting the topic of climate change to be formally integrated into southern New England’s official public school curricula is a work in progress. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

South Dakota passes a resolution that calls carbon dioxide “the gas of life” and states that public schools should teach that “global warming is a scientific theory rather than a proven fact.”

The Louisiana Science Education Act calls on educators to help promote “thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

A Texas state board of education revises a benchmark for earth and space science from “analyze the changes in Earth’s atmosphere through time” to “analyze the changes in Earth’s atmosphere that could have occurred through time,” and adds a benchmark for environmental systems requiring students to “analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming.” The board chair at the time is quoted as saying, “Conservatives like me think the evidence (for human contributions to global warming) is a bunch of hooey.”

A group of Colorado parents petitions a school district to stop teaching climate change, telling the school board that climate change “is not a proven scientific theory” and arguing that “if the subject is going to be taught, the ‘other side’ should be presented so that students aren’t subjected to a frightening untruth.”

Climate-change denial is threatening the integrity of science education in formal and informal education settings, according to the National Center for Science Education.

While politics and ideology in southern New England haven’t, at least not yet, encouraged teachers to discuss “the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories like climate change,” what are public school students in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut being taught about what is considered among the 21st-century’s greatest threats?

Installing solar panels on school rooftops and building new schools to LEED Gold standards is commendable, but developing an educated society that is both literate and aware of the natural world and humanity’s role in altering it is the investment with a bigger upside. The future of human life on this planet will increasingly depend on our ability to understand how ecosystems function.

New standards
While individual teachers and schools in the three states have been addressing climate change for the past decade, getting the topic to be formally integrated into southern New England’s official public school curricula is a work in progress.

On May 23, 2013, Rhode Island became the first state to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards. Connecticut adopted the federal standards two years later.

Massachusetts is adapting the standards, not adopting them, according to Jacqueline Reis, media relations coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The proposed standards maintain much of the content of the current standards, with updates to reflect changes identified by the field and changes to content of science and engineering during the past 15 years, according to the department.

The National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Achieve, a nonprofit education reform organization created by governors and business leaders, developed the K-12 standards, which were designed to combat ignorance of science, create common standards for teaching, and develop greater interest in science among students.

Much of the funding for the creation of the new federal standards came from big corporations in need of employees with a science background, according to Carolyn Higgins, president of the Rhode Island Science Teachers Association.

“These companies are investing in their scientific future,” said Higgins, who teaches science at Winman Junior High School in Warwick. “There’s a lack of qualified applicants with science backgrounds.”

The new Next Generation standards incorporate climate change and geoscience education, and address such issues as sustainability, along with reduce and reuse practices.

Higgins said it’s important that public schools introduce students to the impact humans have on the planet. “Teach them about pollution … the impact chemicals spilled or dumped into a brook will have fish,” she said. “These new standards don’t tell teachers how to teach; they let teachers know what kind of science-related topics they should educating students about.”

Elliot Krieger, spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Education, recently told ecoRI News that the state’s 300 public schools have begun teaching to these new standards. It will take time, however, for each school district and its teachers to fully implement the standards.

Simone Palmer, the department’s science and technology specialist, said students in all grade levels are learning about the importance of natural resources and environmental protections.

For instance, she noted that kindergartners are learning how to reduce human impacts on the environment, and fifth-graders are learning how to protect natural resources.

“We’re hitting pretty heavily on topics like carbon emissions,” Palmer said. “Earth science standards are also changing.”

This nationwide change was likely spurred, at least in part, by a 2007 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report that found U.S. geoscience education “is in need of significant improvement,” and “there is great variation in the degree to which states currently incorporate modern Earth science perspectives into their science standards.”

The 59-page report also noted that “global warming and its effects on glacial mass balance, sea level, ocean circulation, regional and global weather and climate, and coral bleaching, to name only a few potential impacts, are important global issues that demand immediate attention.”

Higgins, who is in her 14th year teaching science, said it’s important to teach children to be good consumers of information. She noted that climate change is a topic that demands information.

“Kids have an interest … show them some straightforward data and let them take a close look at it,” she said. “They’ll recognize changes and see the problems. They’ll start realizing this is a big issue that moves beyond being a few degrees warmer.”

Five years before Connecticut adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, a report by the Governor’s Steering Committee on Climate Change noted that the state lacks farming and food education, suggesting that “VoAg schools need to supply better farming education to future farmers, including how to deal with the challenges of climate change.”

The 195-page report also recommended that schools should teach the benefits of eating local produce, as a way to decrease greenhouse-gas emissions.

In August 2013, the same year the new federal science standards were introduced, the city of Cambridge’s Climate Protection Action Committee (CPAC) noted that, “Given the importance of climate change to youth, CPAC believes that climate change must be addressed through all disciplines — the physical and natural sciences, of course, but also the humanities and social sciences — and in pre-school through high school.”

The CPAC statement also said it “is cognizant of the many and diverse demands placed on our public schools, teachers, and students. Nonetheless, this topic is of such great importance, labeled an emergency by the Cambridge City Council, that it warrants immediate attention.”

At the moment, in Massachusetts, the current public school science and technology/engineering standards don’t include climate change, according to a Jan. 7 e-mail Reis sent to ecoRI News. She noted that the state’s proposed revised standards do include the topics of climate change and sustainability.

The state’s draft earth and space science standards build from middle school and allow high-school students to explain additional and more complex phenomena related to earth processes and systems, according to the proposed standards. The standards about “Earth and Human Activity help students understand natural resources, natural hazards, human impact on Earth systems, and global climate change.”

Lessons lost
The amount of waste generated and then casually discarded in the United States is mind-boggling. The statistics are alarming.

The average person generates 4.3 pounds of waste a day — 1.6 pounds more than most produced in 1960, according to the Duke University Center for Sustainability & Commerce.

About 55 percent of the 220 million or so tons of waste generated annually in the United States ends up in one of more than 3,500 landfills nationwide, according to the center. These landfills are the second-largest source of human-related methane emissions — a powerful greenhouse gas — in the United States, accounting for about 22 percent of climate-changing emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The benefits — economically, socially and environmentally — of reducing and reusing are substantial, and should be taught in U.S. public schools. In fact, the topics of waste reduction and waste management should be central to a student’s education, according to educators ecoRI News has spoken with.

Sadly, at least in southern New England, many public schools don’t even recycle. It’s difficult to teach a valuable lesson when recycling bins are used as trash receptacles.

Public schools are typically among the largest waste producers in most municipalities. Schools generate, on average, 4.7 pounds of waste per person per day, according to the EPA. Much of that waste tossed into Dumpsters is recyclable or compostable, such as copy paper, plastic bottles and cafeteria scrap. A lack of recycling and composting at public schools is one reason, among many, that the country’s combined recycling/composting rate is about 34 percent.

In Rhode Island, it’s nearly impossible to determine how much material the state’s 300 public schools, numerous employees and 143,000 students contribute annually to the shrinking Central Landfill in Johnston, but it certainly is significant.

The Rhode Island Department of Education has no system in place to monitor the recycling efforts of the state’s 36 school districts, or offer guidance on how to do so. That responsibility falls to each district. Most don’t bother, despite the fact all Rhode Island entities are required by state law to separate their waste into recyclable and non-recyclable streams.

Rhode Island public school Dumpster material is mixed with residential and/or municipal building waste by the time it arrives at the Central Landfill, according to Sarah Reeves, director of recycling services for the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, which manages the Johnston facility.

When asked about how much of that public school material is likely recyclable or compostable, Reeves wrote, “In my best guesstimate, I’d say at least 70-80 percent. Think about it — what is being thrown away? Loads of paper, cardboard, bottles, cans, cartons, food scraps — all recoverable. The trash is mainly from the bathrooms.”

She noted that some Rhode Island municipalities, such as Bristol, have done school waste audits.

Massachusetts, which has 955,844 public school students, doesn’t require any of its 1,866 schools to recycle, according to Reis, of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

In 1990, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) introduced its first bans on the landfilling and incineration of recyclable and toxic materials. Among the materials and items businesses, homes and institutions, including public schools, are prohibited from disposing of in such a manner are: asphalt, brick and concrete; leaves and yard waste; glass and metal containers; paper and cardboard.

A 2011 study by a Worcester Polytechnic Institute student investigated the recycling practices of Worcester County, Mass., high schools and colleges. “One of the most significant findings of this study was that high schools are not held accountable for any type of record keeping for recycling data and this showed to be detrimental to their recycling performance.”

In Connecticut, both public and private schools are required by state law to recycle mandated items, including glass and metal food and beverage containers, plastic containers, cardboard, and waste oil. Leaves must be composted, and grass clippings should be left on the lawn or composted.

In 2012, the Northeast Waste Management Officials’ Association prepared a report for the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) on how to better manage solid waste. The 35-page report noted the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority’s — now the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority — efforts to promote waste reduction and increase recycling across the public school system.

Included among the authority’s recommendations were: buy more durable and repairable products; develop procurement policies that focus on reducing packaging; and consider disposal costs in purchasing decisions and use the system’s purchasing power to negotiate both pickup and delivery of products, not just delivery.

The importance of waste reduction needs to be part of a school’s culture and curriculum, according to the educators ecoRI News spoke with for this story. And those lessons need to go beyond telling students to rinse out soup cans, recycle plastic water bottles, break down cardboard, and use both sides of paper.

In the cafeteria, for instance, one way to reduce the amount of edible food destined for the Dumpster — or perhaps a compost pile — would be to create a spot where students could share unwanted food, such as a piece of fruit, meatloaf sandwich or bag of carrots, with classmates with different culinary tastes.

Lessons taught
Rhode Island’s 2011 Teacher of the Year, Shannon Donovan, has been incorporating environmentalism, energy use and climate change into her high-school lesson plans for the past dozen years. She said the new federal science standards, while good, haven’t really altered the teaching being done inside her Scituate High School classroom.

Donovan’s classroom includes an adjoining greenhouse and an expanse of outdoors surrounding the school on Trimtown Road. This natural classroom includes raised flower beds and a nearby wooded area where students have built trail signs and revised a forest management plan. She speaks with her students about the importance of the local production of food and energy.

Several years ago, some ninth-grade students helped Donovan retrofit a beat-up Chevy pickup from a gas to an electric-powered vehicle. The project combined subjects such as English and physical science to give students a real-world appreciation for topics that might not be appreciated by simply reading a text book. The pickup also acted as a tool for introducing other ideas, such as alternative fuel for transportation.

In 2014, Scituate High School students, with guidance from Donovan, partnered with Central Falls students, from Calcutt Middle School, to develop a proposal for the America the Beautiful-Tree Rhode Island 2015-16 grant program. The students proposal was funded, and last April, the students planted 14 trees around Calcutt Middle School and established the Central Falls Arboretum.

Central Falls has the lowest percentage of tree cover in Rhode Island. Donovan made sure her students recognized that fact, and understood the importance of an urban canopy.

This integrated approach is a piece of the environmentally focused curriculum Donovan has helped create during her 13 years at the school. She teaches physical science, biology, environmental science and chemistry, and runs the popular environmental club.

“My perspective is that education is about teaching things that need to be taught in a way that is appropriate,” Donovan said. “Climate change needs to be taught, but you don’t want the kids feeling hopeless. Show them the ways they can address the issue. Don’t make it overwhelming and all doom and gloom. Students need to feel empowered, so they have the tools to become future leaders.”

The importance of teaching environmental protections, natural resources management, animal welfare and waste management is an emerging trend in southern New England, in both public and private schools.

There are schools in the region that compost cafeteria scrap, and have their own vegetable gardens. Some schools have their own backyard chickens. Some schools even recycle.

The town of Framingham, Mass., in 2010, established a “School Organics Diversion and Reusable Tray” program at four elementary schools. The schools switched from disposable foam trays and plastic utensils to dish-washing machines and reusable trays and silverware. The schools also established organics diversion and composting programs for cafeteria food scrap.

In the first two years of the program, nearly 4 tons of polystyrene trays and plastic utensils were eliminated and nearly 13 tons of food scrap were composted, according to DEP.

The Compass School was founded in 2002, on farmland in Kingston, R.I., to better incorporate student learning about sustainability and social responsibility. The K-8 school, which now owns the former farm, recycles and composts, grows organic produce, and studies, among other environmental topics, weather and tree care.

Rochelle Devault has been teaching marine science, biology and environmental science at the Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, R.I., for three years. Her lessons deal with a range of natural systems and climate-change issues, such as the carbon cycle, the non-human influenced greenhouse effect, and the impact of excess greenhouse gases on the ocean and atmosphere.

She talks to her students about ocean acidification, and she makes sure they understand the difference between renewable and non-renewable energy.

“I want my students to understand energy efficiency, and how passive solar works,” said Devault, who also teaches an advanced placement environmental science course. “It’s important to drive home the idea of sustainability and teach students how to be more intelligent consumers.”

The Greene School in West Greenwich, R.I., a statewide charter high school, was founded on environmental stewardship. “Students are prepared to be informed, skilled, active and innovative community leaders who will become the environmental stewards of the future,” according to the school’s website.

The school’s lunchroom features four bins, one each for: lunch-tray food scrap, to be composted on-site; pig food, kitchen scrap picked up by a local pig farmer; recycling; and trash.

ecoRI News recently spoke with three Greene School students about climate change, environmental protections, energy use and natural resources. We left the wooded campus impressed with the students’ awareness of and intelligence about these and other related issues, such as waste management, land use, human population and social justice.

Senior Jacob Presley spoke passionately, and with matured reasoning, about environmental protections. “There’s a growing realization of these problems in our age group. They’re talked about in conversation. It’s about spreading awareness and making good choices. It’s about creating change through education.”

South Kingstown, R.I., resident Erin Cunningham, a Greene School junior, expressed informed concern about sea-level rise. “I live near the beach and I can see the ocean creeping closer to the shore. It’s scary. We need to address it sooner rather than later. Politicians need to talk about it more, and we need to change how society views climate change.”

Junior Aidan Boving spoke knowledgeably about energy use and carbon emissions. “How we use energy impacts the world around us. Energy use impacts the climate. We have to get government more involved in how we view the environment.”

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  1. Unless and until we directly address human Overpopulation we are just diddling around. Overpopulation is the root-cause of climate change, human migration, war, and our other major problems.

  2. PWC East Bay Met school (Newport) has an active Green Team that promotes recycling best practices as well as uses their own waste stream to create conservation art pieces.

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