Research Summary

Climate change education in the humanities classroom: a case study of the Lowell school curriculum pilot

Implementation of climate change education in the humanities classroom

Environmental Education Research

Climate change education (CCE) in the United States has not been widely implemented into public education. Typically, climate change is taught in science classrooms, but climate change is an issue that affects society as well. The authors of this paper suggest that teaching about climate through the humanities—such as art, history, economics, and literature—could encourage students to empathize with those affected. This study explored the impacts on students and teachers when CCE was taught through a social studies curriculum, as well as administrative opportunities and barriers to implementing this curriculum.

The study took place at a small private middle school in Washington, D.C. called the Lowell School. The school revised their sixth-grade humanities curriculum around climate change, which was divided into three themes (one for each trimester): energy, movement, and collective action. The curriculum was then implemented over the course of a school year. The sixth-grade students received climate change education in their humanities courses (experimental group). For comparison, eighth grade students received climate change education only in their science class. The fifth and seventh-grade students did not receive climate change education for the school year (control group).

The researchers collected data using multiple approaches. Student surveys were administered to 116 students in fifth through eighth grades. The surveys asked about students’ knowledge about and engagement with climate change. For example, knowledge questions included “what is the difference between weather and climate?” whereas the engagement section asked questions like “How worried are you about global warming?” A total of five teachers and staff participated in one-hour interviews in which they discussed the impact of teaching climate change in humanities, student/parent responses, curriculum development process, and recommendations for other schools. Finally, classroom observations were conducted at the end of the study. The surveys were analyzed using statistics and the interviews were analyzed for themes.

Overall, the results showed that the sixth-grade participants enjoyed learning about climate change through the social sciences and humanities. Furthermore, these participants reported higher engagement and increased literacy scores.

Based on the survey results, Lowell Middle School students had a higher level of knowledge about climate change than the average adult in America (according to a 2010 national survey). However, the study also showed that the participants were not more optimistic about climate change. Notably, the sixth graders dramatically improved in reading comprehension in standardized test scores. The sixth-grade students in this program often scored equal to or higher than eighth grade students on climate change knowledge. The sixth-grade students were also more likely to talk to their parents and families about climate change than the eighth-grade students who had climate change education in the science classroom.

The educators considered implementing the new curriculum to be a positive experience and noted the importance of parental support for this curriculum. Lowell Middle School had included parents in the curriculum planning before the school year started, which may have increased parent buy-in. Teachers believed that some adjustments could be made for future uses of this curriculum. To improve on the students’ low optimism about solutions to climate change, teachers wanted to expand the solutions section of the curriculum and include meaningful actions as well.

This study has limitations. Relatively few students participated in this study, and the results cannot be generalized to other students or schools. Another study undertaken in a different school may produce different results. The implementation worked at this school because of support from teachers and staff. However, implementing CCE through the social sciences and humanities may have broad-based support in other schools or regions. Finally, the authors did not indicate measuring baseline knowledge or engagement, and the data suggest that students at Lowell may have already been highly interested in climate change. More research is needed to support the conclusion that CCE can support improved test scores.

The authors recommend combining science and humanities through climate change education. Additionally, the teachers recommend incorporating projects in the local community. The authors believe it is important to support teachers learn more about climate change education by increasing the availability of professional development. Furthermore, the authors emphasize the importance of encouraging constructive hope through education and action.

The Bottom Line

This study explored the experience of a middle school in Washington, D.C. that revamped their curriculum to include climate change education in humanities classrooms. The researchers measured knowledge and engagement among sixth graders who participated in the revised curriculum, eight graders who learned about climate change only during science class, as well as other students who did not learn about climate change at all. The results showed that the sixth grade students had increased engagement and increased reading comprehension scores on their standardized testing. The researchers recommend exploring opportunities to integrate climate change concepts into the social sciences and humanities.