STEM education is the key to raising a generation of climate change leaders

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In “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore warned that Earth’s climate system was close to a tipping point, or a threshold beyond which there was no turning back. That was back in 2006. Needless to say, the issue of climate change has been urgent for some time, but scientists now widely agree that we are in a state of acute worldwide emergency. We are teetering on the edge of the tipping point that scientists have been warning us about, and nothing short of drastic, widespread action will be enough to change our Earth’s course.

There is a scientific consensus that climate change is impacting our planet, and with vulnerable communities often being the worst hit, we need to discover more ways to mitigate it. As an educator who specializes in science education, I believe that one of the best ways we can equip our society to address climate change is to raise our overall level of scientific literacy, and we do that by promoting and improving STEM education.   

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In the past few years, there has been an influx of media commentary about how to raise children to become stewards of the environment. Suggestions include instilling a love of the natural world in them or showing them how to be politically active. This is all well and good, but we also need to encourage and support our kids to be scientifically literate. Unfortunately, this isn’t just a luxury that would be nice to have; it is a necessity that we can no longer afford to be without. For our climate change-related actions, whatever they may be, to be truly effective they need to be informed by accurate scientific knowledge.

Again, the aim is to increase scientific literacy in society as a whole. While young people interested in possibly entering STEM fields should certainly be encouraged, the goal isn’t to push everyone into STEM majors and careers. Climate change is a holistic issue, and mitigating it will require efforts on all fronts, including the arts and humanities. This is a job for everyone, not just scientists. An author can tell a compelling story about climate change, for instance, that spurs people into taking action. Or an artist can create a painting that tells a compelling environmental story. Not everyone must work within a STEM field, but we all must work together to combat global climate change.

Saying that we need to invest more in STEM education is a broad statement, so I’ll break it down into three specific calls to action.

1. Increase equity and access in STEM education

Far too many students across the U.S. live in communities and areas that lack adequate access and opportunities to quality STEM education. For instance, schools and caregivers in under-resourced communities are often unable to provide their children with beneficial early exposure to STEM. But to truly educate future generations that are not only scientifically literate but are positioned to tackle a complex and systemic problem like climate change, we need as many diverse perspectives in STEM fields and research as possible. Taking proactive measures to include their voices is truly in our own best interests as a society, as a nation, and as a world.

2. Start STEM education as early as possible

According to the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) report, 62 percent of fourth-graders are not proficient in science and 59 percent are not proficient in math. This is woefully inadequate. But it is not just about helping our children reach sufficient levels of math and science proficiency. It’s about helping them build a solid foundation that will benefit all areas of their education and lives. Exposing children to STEM early in age-appropriate ways has positive impacts across the learning spectrum including literacy, language skills, and executive functioning. And, of course, with jobs in STEM industries expected to grow to almost 9 million by the year 2022, it prepares them for future career growth

3. Provide teachers with high-quality professional development

Next, we need to adequately prepare and develop teachers to teach STEM, both those working in early education as well as the broader K-12 classroom. Elementary school teachers, for instance, teach such a wide breadth of subjects that many of them feel inadequately prepared to teach math and science. Research shows that few of these teachers have taken the full range of STEM courses as part of their teacher’s education and may need additional professional development, support, and resources. Additional preparation, professional development, and resources can only enhance a teacher’s ability to offer high-quality STEM experiences to their students.

STEM Achievement in Baltimore Elementary Schools (SABES) is a collaboration between Baltimore City Public Schools and Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering, funded by the National Science Foundation, that was launched in 2013 and for which I served as principal investigator. SABES is an example of a program designed to address all of the issues discussed above regarding early STEM education (grades 3-5), providing teachers with sustained professional development so that they have the necessary skills and resources, making STEM education more accessible to disadvantaged areas, and incorporating a problem-based approach so that students could see the relevance of STEM to their own lives and communities.

Research on SABES suggests that it has raised the level of student interest in STEM fields. In a survey completed by the SABES research team, the number of students who wanted to become engineers was 27 percent higher in schools participating in SABES than schools that weren’t. The program, which was initially rolled out in nine elementary schools in Baltimore, has now been expanded to all 124 schools in the Baltimore City Public Schools district that have elementary grades.

Advocating for and investing in more programs like these at the national, state and local levels will go a long way towards boosting the scientific literacy of future generations, thereby equipping them to become the effective climate change leaders this world so desperately needs. But we must act on this now. We simply do not have any more time to lose.

Carolyn Parker, Ph.D., is director of the Master of Arts in Teaching Program in the School of Education at American University.