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date: 28 May 2017

Student Perceptions, Textbook Presentations, and Communicating about Climate Change in the U.S. Science Classroom

Summary and Keywords

Although future generations—starting with today’s youth—will bear the brunt of negative effects related to climate change, some research suggests that they have little concern about climate change nor much intention to take action to mitigate its impacts. One common explanation for this indifference and inaction is lack of scientific knowledge. It is often said that youth do not understand the science; therefore, they are not concerned. Indeed, in science educational research, numerous studies catalogue the many misunderstandings students have about climate science. However, this knowledge-deficit perspective is not particularly informative in charting a path forward for climate-change education. This path is important because climate science will be taught in more depth as states adopt the Next Generation Science Standards within the next few years. How do we go about creating the educational experiences that students need to be able to achieve climate-science literacy and feel as if they could take action? First, the literature base in communication, specifically about framing must be considered, to identify potentially more effective ways to craft personally relevant and empowering messages for students within their classrooms.

Keywords: climate change, science communication, science education, teachers, students, textbooks, Next Generation Science Standards, framing

Anthropogenic climate change has been and continues to be a socially and politically contentious topic within the United States (McCright & Dunlap, 2011). While a majority (70%) of Americans believe that climate change is happening, only 53% believe it is caused by human activities (Leiserowitz et al., 2016). More than half of adults worry about climate change, but only 38% think that climate change is affecting humans now (Leiserowitz et al., 2016). The majority of Americans support climate-change mitigation policies, understanding that it will help future generations (Leiserowitz et al., 2016). Science communication, as a field, has been working toward developing improved methods for communicating climate science to the adult public, aiming to increase public engagement and policy support. Science education has parallel issues and objectives.

Youth are set to inherit this global environmental problem; they must craft and implement mitigation policies and adaptation strategies. Therefore, youth will need to understand climate science and the social ramifications of a changing climate. However, educational research indicates that youth are not knowledgeable and not motivated to take action. For example, young adults hold many misconceptions about the causes and effects of climate change (Shepardson et al., 2011; Leiserowitz et al., 2011). Only 54% of young adults believe that climate change is happening, and of those, only 57% believe that it is caused by human activities (Leiserowitz et al., 2011). Only 43% are worried about climate change (Leiserowitz et al., 2011).1 However, youth are keen to learn more, and the majority of adults support the teaching of climate change in school. Currently, school is the primary place where youth learn about the climate (Dupigny-Giroux, 2010; Jeffries et al., 2001; Leiserowitz et al., 2011). Therefore, schooling presents a tremendous opportunity for climate-change educational efforts. The educational system does not exist in a vacuum; instead, classrooms are a reflection of society. How might the societal disagreement and controversy about climate change be influencing the teaching and learning of climate change in U.S. classrooms at present? And, how can the science communication and science education research communities work in partnership to chart a path forward for effective climate change education?

Intersectionality of Science Communication and Science Education

Teaching and learning are, at their essence, communication processes. Additionally, both science education and science communication share similar goals: “Both seek to educate, entertain and engage the public with and about science” (Baram-Tsabari & Osborne, 2015, p. 135). However, these two fields of study have not contributed to the other and have evolved rather separately, resulting in different vocabularies and methodologies. The framing of climate change offers a unique, interdisciplinary context that transcends both fields and may provide an opportunity to further the development of both as vehicles for public engagement around climate issues.

There are some easily identifiable ways in which science education and science communication differ (Lewenstein, 2015). For example, they differ in their general audience. While science education is more narrowly defined within the K-12 student group, science communication generally considers adults as their target audience. Also, the two fields differ in their typical medium and/or setting. Science communication tends to focus on mass media encountered in everyday life, whereas science education occurs within a school setting that utilizes a variety of media. There is also the difference in choice. Generally, students of science are a captive audience due to compulsory attendance; however, communication of science is considered free-choice as people engage in activities at their will or leisure. However, it is the identification of overlapping areas of interest between the two fields that offers the opportunity to unite them.

Both science education and science communication were originally compelled by a goal of supporting democratic institutions (Baram-Tsabari & Osbourne, 2015; Lewenstein, 2015). However, from this democratic seed, the two fields have grown in different ways. While science communication remained committed to the public goal of garnering support for scientific endeavors, science education turned toward a focus on developing future scientists (McKinnon & Vos, 2015). Perhaps as a result, science communication emphasized the social component of the scientific enterprise, whereas science education privileged individual’s scientific knowledge and scientific ways of knowing (Feinstein, 2015). This is not to say that within the science education community there are not alternative conceptions of what the outcomes of science education should be. Most notably, the continued efforts within the education research community to define exactly what is meant by “scientific literacy” are a prime example of attempts to clarify the goals of science education:

Science literacy is desirable not only for individuals but also for the health and well-being of communities and society. More than just basic knowledge of science facts, contemporary definitions of science literacy have expanded to include understandings of scientific processes and practices, familiarity with how science and scientists work, a capacity to weigh and evaluate the products of science, and an ability to engage in civic decisions about the value of science.

(National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016, p. S-1)

Scientific literacy, as defined above, serves as a cross-over concept that has a place in both science communication and science education. The National Academies report calls for a reconceptualization of science literacy to expand the notion of an individual-level perspective to a community or societal-level perspective. This new definition requires a shift from thinking about individuals as sole repositories of scientific knowledge to considering the influence of social structures on science literacy. In both science education and communication, individual scientific literacy has been measured through large-scale surveys of knowledge, attitudes, and awareness. Most of the research within science education is in keeping with this method of measurement. However, shifting to a community or societal-level perspective of scientific literacy offers a new avenue for research and understanding, such as the analysis of the role of “formal policies and institutions (e.g., schools and the scientific establishment) as well as emergent cultural properties such as norms of political participation, social and economic stratification, and the presence of diverse groups and worldviews” (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016, p. 3-1). However, at present, little educational research attempts to analyze scientific literacy in a structural manner, and this is precisely the pivotal point at which the science communication and the science education communities can coalesce.

What might this type of research look like? What might be the theoretical frameworks and methodologies that would cross both disciplines? What is required is a “threshold concept,” which is “akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something” (Meyer & Land, 2003). McKinnon and Vos (2015) argued that “engagement” could serve as a threshold concept to unite the fields of science communication and science education. Because both fields seek to foster engagement with their respective audiences, it serves as a “platform for mutual sharing and discussion” (p. 312). Considering the shared goal of a social perspective of science literacy, other possible threshold concepts are available.

Within science communication, framing theory links macro-level and micro-level processes between society, the media, and individuals in the audience. Frames are “interpretive storylines that set a specific train of thought in motion, communicating why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible for it, and what should be done about it” (Nisbet, 2009, p. 16). Communication scholars have identified three framing processes: (a) frame building, (b) frame setting, and (c) the individual-level effects of framing (Scheufele, 1999). At the macro level, journalists draw upon ideologies, attitudes, and organizational pressures to craft their messages. By doing so, the media is building the frames for a particular topic. During the frame-setting process, the frames are fixed and presented to the audience, making them available to individuals. At the micro-level, individuals in the audience use frames to filter the incoming messages, using “mentally stored clusters of ideas that guide individuals’ processing of information” (Entman, 1993, p.53). As a result, individuals develop attitudes, understand attribution of responsibility, and take actions based on how the issue was framed. These three theoretical processes are supported by empirical work on climate change and media communication. For example, the media’s journalistic norm of balance (giving equal weight to all positions in a debate) has contributed to the public’s view of climate change as controversial even among scientists (Boykoff, 2007).

Issue framing likely occurs in educational contexts as well, especially socially embedded topics such as climate change. Therefore, the theoretical typology from science communication can be adapted to science education or even more widely to other school subjects (See Figure 1).

Student Perceptions, Textbook Presentations, and Communicating about Climate Change in the U.S. Science ClassroomClick to view larger

Figure 1. Theoretical model of framing processes in educational settings.

[Credit line: Busch, 2016, adapted from Scheufele, 1999]

At the macro level, societal ideologies about the topic of climate change as well as the goals of science education serve as an input. During the frame-building process, these ideological stances are operationalized and codified within documents such as the national science education standards. During the frame-setting process, the frames are presented to the students. Frames are enacted as teachers talk about climate change in their lectures. Likewise, teachers make choices about what frames to present based on the available curricular materials, their own personal beliefs and attitudes, the school context, and other community influences. Frame setting may also occur as students engage with the materials that are presented during the lesson, such as textbook readings. During frame setting, the issue is being defined in a particular way for the students. At the micro level, students employ their own individual frames to define what they see as the issue. Students bring with them their own sets of personal experiences and attitudes, which they use when engaging with climate change in the classroom. As youth engage with the frames they encounter at school, they revise and further develop their perceptions of climate change.

This theoretical typology can be used to systematically study the communication of specific topics within educational settings. Climate change is an appropriate candidate as an example topic for analysis because, while it is a scientific matter, it also has a strong connection to society. Additionally, because climate change has become politically contentious (especially in the United States), multiple frames are available. The remaining sections of this article are organized around this theoretical framework, and this article provides a systematic analysis of how climate change is being framed in educational contexts. The aim of this analysis is to provide a preliminary example of what research might look like considering the reconceptualization of scientific literacy at a structural level. An additional aim is to provide a concrete example of how framing may serve as a threshold concept, uniting the fields of science education and science communication.

Frame Building: The Goals of Science Education

Within science communication literature, studies suggest how the media are building frames about climate change in line with ideologies and journalistic norms, influencing both the nature and quantity of the content. In particular, the journalistic norm of balance is influential in producing an impression that the topic is controversial within the scientific community (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2007). At the macro level, societal ideologies about the topic of climate change as well as the goals of science education serve as an input during the frame-building process within an educational context. Therefore, the identification of the goals of science education is important because they greatly influence both the means and the desired outcomes of the K-12 science educational experience.

With the publication of A Framework for K-12 Science Education in 2012, the United States began a national science education reform effort, resulting in the creation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). These new national science standards set the expectations for science teaching and learning within U.S. classrooms, and for the first time, climate change is included explicitly as a topic of study within K-12 science. However, as individual states adopt the NGSS, there seems to be some discomfort around the standards related to climate change. It is also important to consider how the NGSS are positioning climate change, rather than just celebrate the topic’s inclusion in science instruction.

Science content standards heavily influence what is taught and learned in science classrooms (Sunal & Wright, 2006). In the past, a common reason to avoid teaching climate change was that it was not included in the science content standards (National Research Council, 2012; Wise, 2010). Prior to the NGSS, the previous national standards did not include climate change whatsoever (National Research Council, 1996). The United States does not require states to adopt the national standards, and so many states create and implement their own state-level science standards. Analysis of state-level science standards revealed that most American students were not receiving adequate instruction about atmosphere, weather, and climate science (Hoffman & Barstow, 2007). In addition, anthropogenic climate change was only mentioned in thirty states, and only seven states implied that the burning of fossil fuels contributed to climate change (Kastens & Turrin, 2008).

In contrast, the NGSS explicitly include climate science as a topic for study, starting in elementary school and continuing through high school sciences. “Climate” is mentioned explicitly within nine Performance Expectations, which are statements to be used for assessment of student learning. For example, a fifth-grade elementary school student would be asked to “develop a model using an example [including climate] to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact” (Achieve, 2013, p. 44). A high-school student in earth science class would be asked to “use a model to describe how variations in the flow of energy into and out of Earth’s systems result in changes in climate” (Achieve, 2013, p. 99).

Additionally, the NGSS reference anthropogenic climate change in no uncertain terms. Some of the clearest language about anthropogenic climate change is found within Disciplinary Core Ideas, which are essential ideas about science that a student should know upon completion of a K-12 science education. These Disciplinary Core Ideas were drawn from the National Research Council’s A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2012), the spear-heading document from which the NGSS were created. For example, a Disciplinary Core Idea for middle school reads:

Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (global warming). Reducing the level of climate change and reducing human vulnerability to whatever climate changes do occur depend on the understanding of climate science, engineering capabilities, and other kinds of knowledge, such as understanding of human behavior and on applying that knowledge wisely in decisions and activities.

(Achieve, 2013, p. 72)

Overall, the NGSS include numerous climate-related standards, and if a student were to take all of the K-12 science courses, then that student would have exposure to all of the content in The Essential Principles of Climate Science Literacy (Busch & Román, 2017). However, there are two main reasons why students may not engage with all of the climate-related standards in their K-12 science learning. First, many of the standards are placed within the high school earth science course, which is not typically required for high school graduation (U.S. Department of Education, 2011). The lack of a graduation requirement results in only 11% of students taking a high-school level earth or environmental science course (U.S. Department of Education, 2011). Therefore, roughly 90% of students will not encounter the greater majority of standards related to climate change.

Second, rather than being federally mandated, the NGSS are adopted and implemented at the will of individual states. While 40 states have expressed interest in adopting the national standards, as of 2016, only 18 states have officially adopted them. Furthermore, the inclusion of climate change has been contentious, causing some state legislative bodies to block adoption of the standards (Geiling, 2016). As a compromise, some states have adopted the NGSS (or versions thereof) but have modified the language of standards around climate change (Heitin, 2015). For example, in the South Dakota standards, instead of requiring students to “ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century,” students will ask about “factors that may have caused a change in global temperatures over the past century” [emphasis mine]. This political battle is reminiscent of previous controversy over the teaching of evolution, and climate change is presenting a new battlefield (Reardon, 2011). Recognizing this connection, in 2012, the National Center for Science Education (a non-profit organization affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science) added climate change to their mission statement: “NCSE defends the integrity of science education against ideological interference. We work with teachers, parents, scientists, and concerned citizens at the local, state, and national levels to ensure that topics including evolution and climate change are taught accurately, honestly, and confidently” (NCSE, n.d.).

Furthermore, some scholars have critiqued the manner in which the NGSS are positioning climate change. Feinstein and Kirchgasler (2015) identified a thematic pattern common in the NGSS’s discourse around sustainability that privileged an ecological modernization perspective. The ecological modernization discourse is characterized by an optimistic argument for a technological, scientific fix for environmental problems (Hajer, 1995). Critics of ecological modernization counter that technology and free-market induced solutions will ultimately fail to preserve the environment because they do not acknowledge the social and scientific complexity of current global issues such as climate change (Dryzek, 2005). Feinstein and Kirchgasler hypothesize how an ecological modernization perspective would affect instruction about climate change:

[W]e would expect climate change to be presented primarily in physical science terms as a geophysical phenomenon resulting from the changing chemical composition of the atmosphere. It would be described, emphatically, as a global issue, a framing subtly reinforced in the NGSS by its placement within earth and space sciences, where biological localities such as ecosystems are swapped out for geophysical averages of temperature and precipitation. Questions about climate change—how much, where, with what consequences—would be presented as questions that science can answer, and the scientific pursuit of these answers would be portrayed as apolitical. Students in our hypothetical classroom would learn about the relationship between human behavior and climate change in terms of the carbon cycle and the burning of fossil fuels, but they would probably not be asked to think about who has historically burned and continues to burn the majority of the fuels and who, both across and within societies, is harmed most by the practice. Burning fossil fuels would probably be framed as something that humans (in general) do and that humans may, in turn, be affected by. Students and teachers would discuss the potential impacts of climate change in relatively precise geophysical terms (such as degrees of warming and meters of sea level rise) but very vague social terms.

(Feinstein & Kirchgasler, 2015, pp. 135–136)

Interestingly and unfortunately, this hypothesis is supported by research about the teaching of climate change discussed in detail in the following sections. To summarize, the goal of this section was to identify and articulate the inputs—ideologies, attitudes, and organizational pressures—for the frame-building process. Inputs to frame building are exemplified in the NGSS, which include climate change as topic as a topic worthy of study (in states that adopt the standards). However, the presentation of the topic may be problematic in that climate change is being framed using an ecological modernization discourse, which frames climate change as a scientific issue to be solved by free markets and technological advances. This type of framing downplays the role of human behavior as both the cause of and solution for climate change. In the next section, this analysis of the framing of climate change in educational setting shifts to the frame-setting processes: the communication of climate change in textbooks and by teachers.

Frame Setting: Textbooks and Teachers

Communication research provides a rich understanding of the manner in which climate change has been presented by mass media sources. The public audience is receiving different views of the risk involved with climate change depending on the ideological slant of media sources with which they choose to engage. For example, Fox News represents climate change as uncertain by interviewing a greater proportion of climate deniers (Feldman, Nisbet, Leiserowitz, & Maibach, 2010). Using content analysis, Sonnett (2010) found that political magazines emphasize dread; science magazines emphasize adaption; business magazines stress caution; and environmental magazines call for protection. Within the school context, frame-setting occurs when teachers talk about climate change in their lectures. Frame setting may also occur as students engage with the materials that are presented during the lesson, such as textbook readings. During the frame-setting process, the issue is being defined in a particular way for the students. This section features the limited research that exists about how climate change is framed in texts and by teachers.

Science textbooks are an important resource for both students and teachers (Weis, 2013; Weiss, Banilower, McMahon, & Smith, 2000), often establishing the existing knowledge base for science topics. Choi and colleagues (2010) analyzed how climate change was represented in seven earth and environmental science textbooks commonly used in the United States. They were specifically interested in the how textbooks may or may not be contributing to 18 common misconceptions that students have about climate science. For example, students are confused about the mechanisms of the greenhouse effect, specifically the difference between the incoming solar radiation and the outgoing infrared radiation. How might textbooks be contributing to such misunderstandings about climate science? First, about half of the scientific concepts related to climate change (for which they were looking) were found to be entirely absent from most textbooks. By omission, the textbooks do not provide the correct information that students (or teachers) need to understand climate change. Secondly, some textbooks actively provide misinformation, reinforcing misconceptions. For example, in relation to the common misconception that there is not a difference between incoming and outgoing radiation, textbook images may be to blame. Consider the image from one textbook (Figure 2). In this image, the forms of radiation are labeled, but it may not be clear that they are different types of energy. This image also demonstrates other common misconceptions that students have about climate change, such as a lack of differentiation between greenhouse effect and air pollution, or between the greenhouse effect and climate change.

Student Perceptions, Textbook Presentations, and Communicating about Climate Change in the U.S. Science ClassroomClick to view larger

Figure 2. Textbook representation of the greenhouse effect.

[Credit line: Sager et al., 2002]

Choi and colleagues contend that the misrepresentation of climate change in textbooks could be contributing to the reinforcement of common student misconceptions. This idea seems more plausible when considering students’ own representations of the greenhouse effect (Shepardson et al., 2011). The similarities between the textbook image (see Figure 2) and the student drawing (see Figure 3) are striking. Both show no distinction between the different types of incoming and outgoing energy. The atmosphere and carbon dioxide seem to be a distinct layer around the Earth, with the carbon dioxide being closer to the surface, which may indicate confusion that carbon dioxide is only air pollution.

Student Perceptions, Textbook Presentations, and Communicating about Climate Change in the U.S. Science ClassroomClick to view larger

Figure 3. Student representation of the greenhouse effect.

[Credit line: Shepardson et al., 2011]

In addition to conceptual confusion, textbooks may also be perpetrating the myth that there is scientific controversy around climate change. Román and Busch (2016) investigated the language used in the climate change section of four sixth-grade science textbooks adopted in the state of California; they were specifically interested in how the language used represented levels and sources of uncertainty and how humans were involved as either a cause or a solution for climate change. Systemic functional linguistic analysis methods (Schleppegrell, 2004) were used to characterize the texts’ representation of uncertainty and attribution. The findings showed that these textbooks framed climate change as uncertain in the scientific community—both about whether it is occurring as well as about its human causation.

Typically, text found in school science textbooks is free from modalities, presenting scientific concepts as facts or definitions (Latour & Woolgar, 2013; Kloser, 2013). However, modalities were present in these sections about climate change. One California textbook, for example, states: “Some scientists think that the 0.7 Celsius degree rise in global temperatures over the past 120 years may be due in part to natural variations in climate” (Prentice Hall, 2008, p. 377). Through the use of indeterminate quantifiers (“some”) and modal verbs (“may”), the textbook is creating a flawed understanding of the level and sources of uncertainty about climate change (see Table 1 for text examples).

Use of modal verbs

Some scientists predict that the level of carbon dioxide could double by the year 2100 (Focus on Earth Science, Prentice Hall, 2008, p. 376).

Scientists are concerned that the resulting rise in Earth’s average surface temperature might alter climates and other aspects of our environment (Focus on Earth Science, CPO, 2007, p. 116).

Use of indeterminate quantifiers

Not all scientists agree about the causes of global warming. Some scientists think that the 0.7 Celsius degree rise in global temperatures over the past 120 years may be due in part to natural variations in climate (Focus on Earth Science, Prentice Hall, 2008, p. 377).

Some scientists believe that human activities can affect the climate of our planet (Focus on Earth Science, Glencoe-McGraw Hill, 2007, p. 399).

Within the scientific community, the negative effect of humans on the climate is clear (IPCC, 2013). In contrast, for the public, anthropogenic climate change is still considered controversial (Pew Research, 2015). Thus, the school science text’s framing of climate change as uncertain was built from the public discourse—a discourse of doubt—about climate change rather than the scientific discourse found within the science community (Oreskes & Conway, 2010). If students do not understand that climate change is certainly occurring and certainly the result of human activity, then they will not see the need for taking mitigating action (Bord et al., 2000; Krosnick et al., 2006; Vainio & Paloniemi, 2013). Therefore, it was hypothesized that the uncertainty found in school textbooks will decrease student concern and willingness to take action. This research has implications for the creation of new textbooks, certainly. However, of more import is helping students to develop the critical reading skills needed to read materials that may be presenting a biased account of climate change, as can be found in mass media sources.

While textbooks are one print resource with which students and teachers engage, there are also many curricular materials available on the Internet that serve to communicate climate change within the classroom setting. These materials are scientifically sound if they are coming from scientific organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (links provided in Educational Resources section). Additionally, the Climate Literacy & Energy Awareness Network (or CLEAN) provides a collection of vetted educational resources. Lessons and resources are reviewed by educators and scientists to ensure that all resources are appropriate for students as well as scientifically accurate.

However, denialist curricular materials are also readily available. For instance, the Fraser Institute, which identifies itself as an “independent, non-partisan research and educational organization,” provides a climate-change curriculum titled Understanding Climate Change—Lesson Plans for the Classroom (Fretwell & Scarborough, 2009). Within this curriculum document, lessons take students through a series of activities that argue against human causation of current climate change. In one lesson called “Correlation is not Causation,” students read that “Whether carbon dioxide emissions resulting from human actions have contributed to climate change is a matter of intense debate. The fact that climate is always changing is often overlooked” (Fretwell & Scarborough, p. 22) and “[C]limate changes over time. It has done so for hundreds of thousands of years and will continue to do so, regardless of human behavior” (Fretwell & Scarborough, p. 23). This curriculum is written by the same author as The Sky’s Not Falling!: Why It’s OK to Chill about Global Warming, a children’s book about climate change (Fretwell, 2007). The book has chapters titled “Climate Change and Chicken Little, Is the Earth Really Getting Hotter?,” and “Global Temperatures Go Up and Down—Naturally!” Clearly, these curricular materials are ideologically driven and do not represent the scientific understanding as evidenced in the various Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s reports.

As evidenced by the few studies available, textbook portrayal of climate change may be problematic on several levels. First, the texts may be reinforcing conceptual misunderstandings that students have. Secondly, textbooks or curricular materials can also frame climate change as controversial, even amongst scientists. Teachers also have the important task of framing the topic of climate change for their students, choosing both what to teach as well as how to teach the topic.

Most of what can be said about how teachers teach about climate change is determined through self-report. The first nationally representative survey of science teachers was conducted in 2016 by Plutzer and colleagues, revealing that a large proportion (75%) of science teachers do teach climate change in their science classes. The median time given to the topic is 1 to 2 hours over the course of an academic year, with instruction including the greenhouse effect, the carbon cycle, and the effects of global warming. While superficially this seems like good news, the survey also asked how the topic is taught. Of those teachers who teach climate change, slightly more than half of teachers (54%) teach the scientific consensus that current climate change is the result of human activities. However, 31% of the teachers are sending mixed messages by discussing the scientific consensus while also emphasizing natural causes of current climate change. And fully 10% of teachers neither teach about the scientific consensus nor do they emphasize human causation, sending a strictly denialist message to their students. Regional surveys have provided an even more disparaging glimpse into the teaching of climate change. For instance, previous work conducted within the state of Colorado indicated that as many as 63% of teachers marginalize or avoid teaching the topic. Additionally, 75% said that “both sides” should be taught, and 25% said that discussion of “both sides” was appropriate but that the scientific consensus should be emphasized (Wise, 2010). Why might teachers be presenting climate change as controversial?

First, many teachers do not feel well prepared to teach about climate-related topics (National Research Council, 2012) and hold many of the same misconceptions as do the general public (Wise, 2010; Lambert et al., 2012; Papadimitriou, 2004). This is not surprising considering that most science teachers did not take climate science courses while in college (Plutzer et al., 2016). Furthermore, teachers are relying on many of the same sources of information as the general public, including websites and television shows (Wise, 2010; Sullivan, Ledley, Lynds, & Gold, 2014). Using the mass media as a source of scientific information is problematic. It has been well documented that, within the United States, the mass media has portrayed anthropogenic climate change as uncertain and controversial (e.g., Boykoff, 2007; Boykoff & Boykoff, 2007). Perhaps consequently, less than half of science teachers are aware of the current levels of scientific consensus (Plutzer et al., 2016).

Another interpretation is that teachers hold beliefs that may be antithetical to teaching about anthropogenic climate change. However, when asked whether climate change is happening and whether humans are causing it, science teachers fare better than the general public. While only 2 out of 3 Americans believe that global warming is happening and only 53% think it is anthropogenically caused (Leiserowitz et al., 2015), 98% of teachers indicated that they believed that climate change was occurring and 68% agree with human attribution (Plutzer et al., 2016). Again, however, regional surveys offer a more grim outlook. A survey of teachers in North Carolina found that while nearly 92% of the teachers believed that global warming was occurring, only 12% attribute recent climate change to human activity (Stevenson et al., 2016). For the general public, belief in anthropogenic climate change is strongly correlated to political ideology and worldview (Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, & Braman, 2011; Leisrowitz et al., 2011). This tendency is also true for teachers, as teachers’ political ideology is a powerful predictor of their teaching approach, even when considering level of content knowledge (Plutzer et al., 2016).

Additionally, teachers have expressed concern about teaching climate change because they consider it to be controversial (Sullivan et al., 2014; Gayford, 2002). Teachers may fear backlash due to student, parent, and community skepticism, as U.S. public opinion has become increasingly polarized and politicized (McCright & Dunlap, 2011). The possibility of backlash seems to be founded; 25% of surveyed earth science teachers indicated that students, parents, or the administration have argued with them about whether climate change was happening or whether it was anthropogenically caused (Johnson, 2012). As a result, teachers have indicated that one reason for teaching “both sides” is to approach the subject in a fair and unbiased manner (Wise, 2010). This strategy is not supported by the science education research community and harkens to the U.S. science education disputes about the teaching of evolution.

Lastly, some teachers see social aspects of climate change education as being outside their responsibility as science teachers (Gayford, 2002; Johnson, 2012; McGinnis et al., forthcoming). In response, educators attempt to avoid social controversy by “focusing on the facts,” providing a strictly scientific accounting of the phenomenon. One study that directly observed teachers in the classroom found that this limiting view of what science teachers should teach has direct consequences for what is included in instruction. Busch (2016) found that, when lecturing about climate change, teachers mainly used a science discourse approach. In science discourse, climate change was framed as a current scientific problem that will have profound global effects on the Earth’s physical systems. Problematically, communication literature has established that these frames—global scale, scientific facts and statistics, and impact on large-scale Earth systems—do not elicit concern or motivation to take action because these frames lack personal relevance. In contrast, teachers used a social discourse approach must less frequently. Social discourse frames climate change as a future, social issue that will have a negative impact on people at the local level. These frames—local scale, impact on humans, and connections to social, economic, and political processes—establishes climate change as a problem in the here and now. Social discourse frames meet the recommendations for effective communication about climate change (Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, 2014). However, these science communication recommendations are based on studies conducted with adults and not youth. Some researchers indicate that youth may react differently than adults to different framings (Corner et al., 2015).

Some within the science education research community also recommend teaching about science in a way that encompasses the social dimensions (DeBoer, 1991). Socioscientific issues (SSI) education attempts to bridge science content by providing social context (Sadler, 2011). This context situates the science in a way that is personally meaningful for students. Research indicates that students are most interested in topics that have personal relevance, and they are seeking experiences in their school science classes to connect the science to their lives (Osborne & Collins, 2001; Osborne et al., 2003). In SSI classrooms, students engage in activities such as deliberative decision-making, citizen participation, scientific argumentation, and moral and ethical reasoning. SSI-based education has the potential to enhance students’ ability to make decisions about complex issues (Zeidler et al., 2005; Kolstø, 2001).

There is an underlying assumption that teachers and texts can affect student perceptions about climate change. While plausible, this assumption may (or may not) be true. It is rare, and perhaps difficult, for research to provide direct causal support for the claim. School is an important source of information about climate change for students, and both teachers and textbooks are setting the frames for their students. Both the frame-building and the frame-setting processes have been analyzed, drawing on guiding documents and research in science education. In the next section, the individual-level effects of framing are examined. They are primarily accomplished by providing a summary of the existing research on student understanding of climate change and offering a glimpse into the growing body of research attempting to establish the mechanisms by which students come to understand and take action to curb climate change.

Individual-level Effects of Framing: Student Perceptions of Climate Change

During the individual-level effects of framing process, students will employ their own individual frames to define what they see as the issue. Students bring with them their own sets of personal experiences and attitudes, which they use when engaging with climate change in the classroom. As youth engage with the frames they encounter at school, they revise and further develop their perceptions of climate change. Undoubtedly, the hope and promise of climate change education is to inform youth and inspire their action. It is true that those born in the 21st century will suffer disproportionately compared to those born in the 20th century, who have been the primary contributors to anthropogenic climate change. However, most of the research about youth and climate change indicate that they are misinformed, ambivalent, and disinclined to take action (Jakobsson et al., 2009; Shepardson et al., 2011). While the predominance of the current literature is a catalogue of youth knowledge deficits, there is a growing research community attempting to tackle the other mechanisms by which we can improve climate change education and student perceptions.

Although youth will undoubtedly face the detrimental effects of climate change, the results of a nationally representative survey of U.S. teenagers indicate that they are unconcerned. Similar to adults, many youth tend to have dismissive attitudes about climate change; 57% of youth surveyed claim to not be worried about global warming (Leiserowitz et al., 2011). The most common interpretation of youth’s lack of concern is that it results from a lack of knowledge.

Of those surveyed, only 25% of youth would receive a passing grade (an A, B, or C) on their knowledge of climate-change science. For instance, to the statement “climate often changes from year to year,” 28% responded that this is false and 17% responded that they “don’t know.” To the statement “climate and weather mean pretty much the same thing,” only 41% responded that this was false and 19% were unsure. Both of these results indicate confusion between the concepts of weather and climate, which would hinder a person’s ability to understand the difference between short-term and long-term changes in Earth systems. This misconception could be leading youth to their perception that climate change is not happening. Furthermore, of those surveyed, only a little more than half (54%) agreed that climate change was happening. These polling results are similar to a common refrain in science education research exhorting that youth do not have a firm understanding of climate science.

Numerous science education studies have been conducted that have assessed student understanding of the climate and of global warming. The results are similar to the polling results—students would not appear knowledgeable about climate science. Students have many misconceptions, and these misconceptions have remained consistent over time. For instance, a study done in 1992 by Boyes and Stanisstreet showed that students did not differentiate between ozone-layer depletion and global warming. Students thought that global warming was occurring because more light was coming through the ozone hole, and one of the consequences of global warming was increased rates of skin cancer. These misconceptions have not changed when researchers repeated the study in 2010, finding similar misconceptions to exist among students (Jeffries et al., 2001). In 2011, a synthesis of the literature on student climate change misconceptions, Shepardson and colleagues found many common student misconceptions (results are summarized in Table 2).

Student Misconceptions

Research Study

Air pollution (including acid rain) causes climate change.

Boyes et al. (1993), Boyes and Stanisstreet (1993), Pruneau et al. (2001), Gowda et al. (1997), Boyes and Stanisstreet (1997), and Andersson and Wallin (2000)

Ozone depletion is the cause of climate change.

Osterlind (2005), Pruneau et al. (2003), Andersson and Wallin (2000), Koulaidis and Christidou (1999), Boyes et al. (1999), Boyes and Stanisstreet (1993, 1997), Rye et al. (1997), and Boyes et al. (1993)

Global warming is caused by the Earth getting closer to the sun.

Pruneau et al. (2003)

Students are not able to identify greenhouse gases.

Boyes et al. (1993), Boyes and Stanisstreet (1993, 1997), Pruneau et al. (2001), and Fisher (1998)

Greenhouse gases exist as a special layer like a lid or a roof in the atmosphere.

Koulaidis and Christidou (1999), Pruneau et al. (2003), and Andersson and Wallin (2000).

Students do not know about the greenhouse effect or are unable to distinguish between the greenhouse effect and global warming.

Andersson and Wallin (2000), Pruneau et al. (2001), and Boyes et al. (1993)

The greenhouse effect is the trapping of solar rays by the ozone layer.

Boyes and Stanisstreet (1997), Koulaidis and Christidou (1999), and Pruneau et al. (2003)

Students do not differentiate between the different types of radiation.

Boyes and Stanisstreet (1997, 1998), Fisher (1998), Koulaidis and Christidou (1999), and Osterlind (2005)

Global warming will cause skin cancer.

Boyes et al. (1993), Boyes and Stanisstreet (1993, 1998), and Pruneau et al. (2003)

Global warming effects will be the same for all parts of the Earth.

Boyes and Stanisstreet (1993)

Global warming will not affect humans.

Pruneau et al. (2001, 2003)

Global warming cannot be stopped.

Pruneau et al. (2001)

To date, a substantial portion of the research in climate change education has focused on the assessment of knowledge or misconceptions held by students. This is based on the assumption that “improving education about climate change begins with a clear picture of how students currently understand the issue” (National Research Council, 2012, p. 11). However, there is a wide gap between knowledge and action (Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002), and action is an important outcome to consider. First, the greatest difference between teaching about climate change and other science topics is the “call to action” to reduce the effects of climate change, such as when students are asked to determine ways they can reduce their personal carbon footprint or to make suggestions for alternative energy policies. While teachers may not specifically be asking students to personally take these actions, the action that is needed is at the very least implied. Secondly, the democratic argument (teaching science for citizenship) also holds that science is being taught and learned so that students will be able to make informed decisions and take appropriate actions when they become adults. Unfortunately, young adults are less inclined than adults to take mitigating action to reduce their contribution to climate change, even though they do have more pro-environmental attitudes (Feldman et al., 2010; Johnson et al., 2004).

The most common explanation for not taking action is lack of knowledge. The knowledge-action theory states that if people become more knowledgeable, they will become concerned, and then they will be motivated to take action (Hungerford & Volk, 1990). The assumption is that if we do not see people acting, they must be misinformed. This particular model of human behavior is referred to as a “knowledge-deficit model,” and its remedy is the provision of more knowledge. However, environmental behavior research shows that while knowledge is a necessary condition, it is often not a sufficient condition for people to act (Bamberg & Möser, 2007). Knowledge of the science of climate change is not correlated to individuals making pro-environmental choices (Kahan et al., 2011; Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011; Vainio & Paloniemi, 2013). Taking action is partially an outcome of knowledge, but also depends upon attitudes, beliefs, and norms. To assume otherwise is to fall victim to the “the myth of the ignorant public”—the belief that people would act better if only they were more informed (Kelsey & Dillon, 2010). Science education research has begun making inroads to understand how these other factors affect youths’ perspectives of climate change and their willingness to take action, primarily in relation to similar research within science communication. In the following section, examples of educational research are presented that include youth worldviews and they ways they affect social influence and personal relevance.

Building upon Kahan’s (2012) research about the role of an individual’s worldview on their response to new information, Stevenson and colleagues investigated the influence of worldview for adolescents. Worldviews are defined along two dimensions: hierarchy-egalitarianism and individualism-communitarianism. The hierarchy-egalitarianism worldview describes the spectrum of attitudes towards social order, and the individualism-communitarianism worldview represents obligations in relation to the well-being of others. Worldviews influence how individuals interact with new information, tending to interpret new information in ways that preserve and support their pre-existing beliefs. Stevenson and colleagues (2014) found a relationship between adolescent’s worldview and their knowledge. While communitarians were overall more likely to accept anthropogenic climate change, individualists with more knowledge were also more likely to accept anthropogenic climate change. The findings indicate that climate change knowledge has the possibility of overcoming skepticism for adolescents. Unlike adults, adolescents’ worldviews are still forming and are more easily changed, thus climate change education holds promise for disrupting the effects of entrenchment of beliefs.

A robust and growing body of research is investigating the role of affect (emotion) in the perception of climate change. Affect, in general, is considered to be a main driver in many behaviors (Slovic et al., 2007) especially as the risk level or level of uncertainty increases (Slovic & Peters, 2006). For the topic of climate change, negative emotions seem to be particularly salient. In particular, messages of “doom and gloom,” which often accompany instruction on climate change, are disempowering (Moser, 2007; O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009). Conversely, concern about climate change is considered to be an important precursor to taking action (Tobler et al., 2012; Alhakami & Slovic, 1994). For example, learning about climate change in a sensational way—such as through the use of vivid images of abandoned polar bears—can simultaneously increase concern and cause feelings of hopelessness (Otieno et al., 2013). Therefore, it appears that a careful balance of emotion—not too much, but not too little—is the best suggestion for messaging (Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, 2014). Again, however, the caveat is that the literature base supporting these recommendations for communication is drawn from research conducted with adults.

Within educational research, Stevenson and colleagues (2015) found that youth relied on affective heuristics when assessing the risk of climate change on society. In contrast, they found that students relied on knowledge of climate change when assessing the risk for wildlife. They hypothesized that the difference was due to the personal nature of the risk when considering effects on humans, such that the difference may be due to an emotional response to the topic (Slovic & Peters, 2006). Ojala (2012) has studied to role of positive emotions on pro-environmental behavior with Swedish teens. Hope, in this case, is defined as a positive emotion about the future and our ability to reach goals. For climate change private-sphere mitigation behaviors such as saving electricity, hope was found to be a significant contributor.

Bamberg and Möser (2007) conducted a meta-analysis of forty-six studies that examined the relationship between pro-environmental behavior and its determinants. They found that the three most substantial predictors of intent to take action were perceived locus of control (or individual efficacy), attitude, and norms. A lack of individual or collective efficacy will act as a barrier to action even when people are knowledgeable about climate science (Kahan et al., 2011). Likewise, social norms are believed to be a powerful influence on individual decision making because of the power of identity within a group (Kahan et al., 2011). In fact, experiments have shown that using frames that are considered relevant to people’s social groups can increase pro-environmental behavior (Bain et al., 2012). Unfortunately, surveys indicate that youth feel neither efficacious nor have the strong social norms that would support taking pro-environmental behavior. Only 8% of youth agreed that we can and will do something to reduce climate change, and only 39% reported that their friends are taking mitigating actions (Feldman et al., 2010). For youth, family is another important social group that may be determining social norms around climate change attitudes and actions. For example, Mead and colleagues (2012) found that youth’s acceptance of climate change and information seeking behaviors were correlated to responsive family interactions.

Lastly, a common suggestion within the climate change communication literature is to make climate change personally relevant to the audience (Nisbet, 2009). Experimental research indicates that personal relevance can be established through local framing. Scannell and Gifford (2013) found that presenting climate change as a local (rather than global) issue can increase motivation to take action; however, the effectiveness of the local framing was most strongly mediated by the degree of local place attachment. Another method for increasing personal relevance is to frame the topic as one valued by the audience; instead of framing climate change as strictly an issue of science it is useful to connect to the societal ramifications. For instance, the Center for Research in Environmental Decisions recommends framing climate change as an issue of national security for politically conservative audiences (Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, 2014). Other possible framings of climate change include public health and economic prosperity (Nisbet, 2009). Increasing personal relevance for youth could also have a positive impact on the effectiveness of climate change education. Generally speaking, students are seeking personally meaningful science education that is related to students’ everyday lived experience (Osborne & Collins, 2001; Osborne et al., 2003). However, 44% of youth do not see climate change as personally important to them (Feldmen et al., 2010). What kinds of educative experiences might be able to shift this perception? Flora and colleagues (2014) reported positive and significant changes in climate change knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors after participation in an “edutainment” (educational-entertainment) program through the Alliance for Climate Education. The program involves “incorporating an educational message about a social issue into popular entertainment content in order to raise awareness, increase knowledge, create favorable attitudes, convey skills and ultimately motivate viewers/participants to take socially responsible action” (p. 422). The climate change program includes a multisensory presentation with in-person young presenters, upbeat music, and interesting graphics that “tells the story of climate change.” In particular, youth are positioned as agents of change both historically (such as within the civil rights movement) and for the future (for climate change).

The examples of research about student perceptions of climate change are indicative of the change that is occurring in science education. As the research lens moves from studies cataloguing the knowledge deficits that students have, it is refocusing on other possible levers for change, such as social and psychological factors. This shift has the potential to positively affect climate education for youth. These studies also attempt to draw the link between communication research and science education research about the individual-level effects of framing process on the outcomes of youth’s environmental attitudes and actions. While most of the communication research has been conducted with adults, a small and growing body of literature within science education focuses on youth. In the next section, these two themes in the literature provide possibilities for improving climate education and bridging the fields of science education and science communication.

Conclusion and Future Directions

This article has two purposes. First, this analysis was intended to serve as a preliminary example of what research might look like considering the reconceptualization of scientific literacy at a structural level. While a goal of science education may be to foster scientifically literate citizens, it is important to consider the educational system that will influence the students’ experience in the classroom. Suggestions for this type of research include an examination of the social structures that influence and shape scientific literacy, as it is developed within educational contexts (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016). In this case study with climate change as a topic, the proposed theoretical typology linking society, school, and students has utility in examining systematically the communication of climate change education in schools. However, it is also useful for considering any scientific issue that has a strong link to society, examples being vaccination, GMOs, or nuclear power. These types of issues, which tend to be accompanied by social controversy, offer a unique opportunity to investigate the role of science in society, especially through the analysis of the language used to communicate such issues. As such, opportunities exist to teach students to be savvy consumers of information that may contain bias or purposeful misinformation. For example, students may engage in a guided text analysis of biased information about climate change, developing fundamental climate literacy or the ability to read, evaluate, and write texts about climate science Busch & Román (2017). Opportunities also exist for teaching in ways that explicitly link society to science, as is common with socio-scientific issues, for example, to offer a design activity about what a local community could do to adapt to climate change. At the very least, this analysis suggests moving beyond the individual, knowledge-deficit perspective that pervades science education research.

Second, this analysis was intended to provide a concrete example of how framing may serve as a threshold concept, uniting the fields of science education and science communication. Teaching and learning are communicative acts; as such, climate change communication research has the potential to significantly improve climate change education. By studying language and the ways in which climate change is being communicated or framed for students, a powerful pathway toward improving climate change education is revealed. The communication literature provides many recommendations for effective messaging with adults, which can be leveraged immediately to craft messages of empowerment for youth and students of science (Corner et al., 2015; Busch & Osborne, 2014). For example, empowering messages about climate change should place climate change in the “here and now,” should emphasize the values that youth hold, and should integrate the social sphere with the science. However, there is much research too be done with youth, as it is likely that youth audiences differ from adult audiences, for whom most of these recommendations have been created. It is a hopeful avenue for future collaborative, interdisciplinary research and outreach that can enhance both science education as well as science communication.


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(1.) Although these educational studies and surveys are becoming dated, they are some of the only nationally representative accounts that are available.