ONCE YOU REACH a certain age, you forget what a simple pleasure it once was to get gloriously messy. The fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Cathcart Elementary in Snohomish have not yet reached that threshold.
On a recent spring morning, they all fidgeted in their chairs while listening to teacher Sadie Brumley’s instructions, eyes darting toward the bags full of orange peels, apple cores, grass and leaves over in the corner. Few humans have ever been as jacked up about the concept of composting.
A previous, related project involved sorting through the school’s trash after lunch to learn how much waste they and their classmates were creating.
“We did it on spaghetti day,” a redheaded boy named Bobby says excitedly. “It was awesome.”
“Best day ever,” chimes in his project partner, eavesdropping. “But like two-thirds of it could have been compost. It was sad.”
“It was so sad,” Bobby agrees, cramming more grass into his compost jar.
The ordinariness of today’s lesson belies how unique and forward-thinking it actually is.
Brumley’s class is one of the results of a statewide climate-science education training initiative (“ClimeTime”) that is the largest of its kind in the United States.
On March 8, 2018, the Washington Legislature approved a $4 million grant for 2018-19 to the state’s nine educational service districts and several community-based organizations to tackle the issue of teaching climate science. Washington is the only state devoting this level of funding and attention to the issue. (This spring, the state House and Senate voted to allocate $3 million for each of the next two years.)
The money is for teacher education, development of educational materials and student events.
The program is implemented by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, partnering on the training with Washington Green Schools, the University of Washington and the State Board of Education, among others.
Washington has been at the forefront of climate-science education since 2013, when it became one of the first states to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, and this grant and this program have been a reaffirmation of that leading role.
Brumley was one of hundreds of K-12 educators from around the state who attended workshops led by scientists to increase their knowledge of climate science. The idea is for them to create curricula and take what they’ve learned back to their classrooms. The program covers the entire state, with a specific focus on student populations underserved in the area of science education.
“We hadn’t been able to offer this type of direct teaching before,” says Ellen Ebert of OSPI. “We were strongly encouraging innovation, because we really want to hone in on best practices. Teachers’ time is so valuable. … This model with a working scientist, who is doing the work, and can translate complex data so that they can really understand, has been really strong.”
A peek inside classrooms like the one at Cathcart illuminates what this program looks like in practice.
HEIDI ROOP can sense some of your jaws clenching already. The UW affiliate assistant professor and lead scientist for science communication at the Climate Impacts Group knows better than just about anybody how controversial the issue of climate change has become.
“I can tell when people are skeptical, and I don’t dismiss their skepticism,” Roop says.
As the leader of a series of the climate-science teacher education events, she does not necessarily consider it her job to convert hearts and minds. She wants critical thinkers in her audiences of teachers, and is typically obliged. Roop desires to lay out data as objectively as possible, leaving it to others’ interpretations, presenting rather than preaching.
In that way, she says, “We’ve been able to leave some of the politicization and polarizing at the door.”
She accomplishes this first by personalizing her lectures. At a recent teacher-education event in Puyallup on floods and drought, the vibe is cheerier than one might think, given the dire overall forecast. Roop is a warm and engaging speaker. Asked by one of her “students” for the day whether she always envisioned her future as a scientist, she responds that, as a kid, she wanted to be an astronaut.
That early tidbit of autobiography comes full circle later, when she describes her research trips to Antarctica. It helps humanize what was perhaps her starkest bit of evidence about climate change: By harvesting ice cores and reading the CO2 levels trapped inside, she explains, it is possible to get readings back 800,000 years and prove that the amount of carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere is unprecedented in all of those years of our planet’s history.
These data weren’t just plucked out of nowhere, or blandly presented in a chart. Roop and her husband, Dr. Peter Neff, who is a glaciologist in the UW Earth and Space Sciences department — “You don’t want to be our friends, basically,” she quips — were on the ground themselves helping to collect it.
“We’re real-life people who dedicated our lives to collecting this data and who are really passionate about it,” she says. “Putting a face on the science really matters.”
She invites audience members to take selfies with her to take back to their classrooms, to show their students that these are real people behind these numbers. That tends to break down, or at least crack, walls of preconceived notions, she’s found.
“I’m sure people leave the room with their own opinions intact, but nobody has said, ‘That’s not real. That’s not true,’ ” Roop says. “It’s more: ‘I had no idea. I had no idea that we had this type of data.’ ”
ROOP ALSO MAKES all of this more relatable by localizing the climate-science topics, bringing them as close to home as possible. The title of the Puyallup presentation is, “How do we know what’s happening, and what does it mean for me?” — which, be honest, tends to grab your eye no matter what its underlying message.
Data is extra compelling when it can be narrowed down to specific impacts on specific regions. Roop, for example, is from the Midwest, so the flooding throughout the middle of the country at the time of her talk is particularly affecting for her. For her audience, she connects shifting trends with observable changes in the Pacific Northwest.
She describes summer 2015, when it felt as if half of Washington state’s forests were on fire after the driest winter in recent memory: a “postcard from the future.” And impacts went beyond the wildfires: Agriculture was affected, too; an estimated 250,000 fewer sockeye salmon ran because of the lack of river flow; and the ski season at Stevens Pass was 42 percent shorter than normal.
“2015, in many ways, characterizes a lot of what we expect our future climate to look like,” Roop says: warmer, and with a different kind of precipitation. By 2050, the average temperature in the Puget Sound region is projected to be 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer. And though the wettest days in the Northwest are actually expected to increase by 22 percent by 2080, the increased temperature means that moisture likely won’t be turned into valuable snow pack.
She points to another of her handy charts, a diagram of a line on a mountain, below which it rains and above which it snows, “Because it’s cold enough for snow to fall,” she explains.
“As we warm the planet, this very same line shifts up,” Roop continues. “Now, this whole section of the mountain range, it’s not getting that reservoir of snow. That’s the easiest schematic that summarizes part of the problem for us in the Pacific Northwest: As we warm the atmosphere, we get more of our winter precipitation — not necessarily a different amount, but a different type of precipitation — more of our snow will fall as rain. … We’ll have more water when we don’t need it, and less when we do.”
Her teacher-students, heads down, scribble furious notes during this section, in particular. One can sense lesson plans filled with these digestible bits of information already forming in their heads.
WHEN SHE WAS her students’ age, science was Brumley’s least-favorite subject.
“My mom, when I started really getting into it with the kids, said, ‘If you would have told me 20 years ago that you would’ve been the one teaching science, I would’ve never believed you. You hated it,’ ” Brumley says, smiling at the memory of her younger self.
Her initial foray into the scientific realm wasn’t exactly by choice. During her first couple of years as a teacher, she stuck to English and math and was more than happy to do so. Then the Washington Assessment of Student Learning standardized tests were instituted for elementary kids, with science as one of the chosen subjects, and that forced her hand.
“Once I realized how applicable it is to everything in life, I really loved that,” Brumley says. “There’s a problem, and here are the different ways you can approach the problem. The first thing might not work, so you have to try something else. Everything goes through the scientific process. We can tie science into everything that we do. I love that.”
And so when she heard about the teaching-climate-science seminars, she was intrigued. She attended a session earlier this year, and had planned on waiting until next school year to implement it into her curriculum. It’s not a small undertaking, reworking your lesson plans on the fly. These seminars provide advice for that, as well as for how to best present these topics per age group, specialized for elementary-, middle- and high-schoolers.
This, again, is where the localization of these lessons can help aid in the learning process.
“We really wanted to make it place-based,” Ebert says. “It had to have been of strong enough interest to make sure that it really stuck with teachers and students. ‘This is how this is going to affect me in real life.’ ”
Brumley’s students so took to that first, experimental, spaghetti-day lesson about the waste produced by school lunches that she knew she was going to have trouble delaying, “Because I have a hard time telling them no,” Brumley says, laughing.
“Bobby was bouncing around, saying, ‘Best day ever. Best day ever,’ ” she continues. “I was like, ‘You’re sorting trash.’ … But they like to get their hands dirty. I think they like that they’re taking something applicable and solving a problem. It empowers them. They like that they’re doing something special. When I saw how excited they were, at that point, I was like, ‘OK. This is gonna be a thing.’ ”
Brumley says she’s yet to hear a complaint from parents about her climate-change curriculum. One of her students relayed that her dad thinks the science “is a hoax,” and that he purposefully doesn’t recycle — but he still provided his daughter with all the supplies she needed for the composting project.
“The parents have been very supportive of what we do here,” Brumley says. “They don’t give me garbage through emails. Parents, even if they don’t agree with the concept in the bigger picture, they can see their kids getting their hands dirty and excited about it, and producing pretty cool stuff. I think they’re just excited to see that their kids are excited, and that their kids are learning.”
Feeling the happy hum of energy within the classroom as students build their compost containers, you do get the sense that this would be a tough crew to refuse literally anything to. Little hands pass supplies back and forth to each other, with groups exchanging tips on best practices.
“Do you like to ski?” one of the kids, a little girl with a blond ponytail, asks me, seemingly out of nowhere.
I respond that I have gone snowboarding before, which is not a good answer.
“Snowboarding is not the same as skiing,” the girl responds.
“It’s not the same at all,” confirms her lesson partner, before they break off into their own conversation about how many times their parents took them to nearby Stevens Pass this winter. It was a small thing, but now bigger, too, given the data that Roop shared — driving home the larger-picture implications of the lesson that still is above these kids’ heads.
“I’m so glad that we finally get to do this,” one of them says, to himself, pouring dirt into his container with a wide grin.
“I think kids are just interested in everything,” Brumley says. “They come at everything with an open mind. That’s why I like elementary. My son is in middle school. He was in this class for three years, and super open-minded. Now that he’s in middle school, two years out, it’s ‘meh.’ You’re already getting cynical and jaded. That’s the problem! At this age, they’re so excited about everything. I think they’re also still removed from the news, and the adult conversations. They can come to school with that open mind, because they’re not too influenced at home.
“This group, they just love to learn.”