Leading the way to climate justice in education

Washington's effort to support teaching about climate science draws on the expertise of UW learning scientists to help young people see themselves as problem-solvers. 


The sun is shining down on Lake Forest Park Elementary in late March, but evidence of problems is still clear on the playing field adjacent to the school. 

Students in Mia Kelley’s sixth grade class walk the field, cataloguing patches of bare dirt. Looking at a parking lot adjacent to the field, they take note of a sinkhole which opened up following last winter’s storms, when rapidly warming temperatures quickly melted a massive pile of snow. 

“When we have a couple days of rain, the field is completely shut down,” Kelley said. When that happens, students are confined to a basketball court for recess. But that has its own problems, as clogged gutters create a large pool of water on the court.

Most of her students are in their seventh year at Lake Forest Park Elementary, and while this will be their last year at the school, they’re getting a chance to diagnose the longstanding issues with flooding, investigate potential solutions and, hopefully, leave behind a better school for students who will follow them. 

Video spotlight

Learn how Washington educators are engaging students in evidence-based critical analysis as they learn about the impacts of climate change in this virtual reality video narrated by Professor Philip Bell.


Diagnosing the problem

This morning, teams of students are mapping the playing field, basketball court, parking lot and surrounding area, taking notes about things like which surfaces are pervious or impervious, where a storm drain is located and the slope of the field.

Kelley and her students pour water onto different patches of the field, one where the grass is growing and another where just a few blades stick up from sand that’s been laid down, and observe whether the water soaks into the ground or stands on top. 

“Where does all that water go?” Kelley asks. 

“Into our pipes,” one student volunteers.

“Into our groundwater,” chimes in another.

“You’ve been out in the field making observations,” Kelley says as the students finish taking notes, “now it’s time to go into the lab and do some research.”

Back inside the classroom, each team explores potential solutions to the flooding, from bioswales to permeable concrete parking lots to rain barrels. As part of their research, students compare the cost of each solution and how long they would take to implement.

For Kelley’s students, the flooding on the school’s playing field poses an immediate problem affecting their daily lives. But the investigation they’re conducting is part of a bigger effort to help students look at the world with a scientific mindset and to see themselves as problem solvers while theay learn about the pressing issue of climate change — such as increased frequency in flooding connected with shifting precipitation patterns in the Northwest. 

Students Run Small-scale Simulations of Different Ways to Fix the Drainage Issues Affecting Lake Forest Park Elementary

Taking the lead on climate science education

In 2018-19, Washington launched the most ambitious statewide climate science education initiative in the U.S. During the first year of the initiative, called ClimeTime, more than 7,500 PK-12 teachers participated in professional learning sessions provided by the state’s educational service districts and a number of community-based organizations — helping teachers and their students better understand climate science issues affecting Washington communities and others around the globe.

ClimeTime is a fast moving, complex and far-flung initiative. Aiding with leadership, coordination and co-design of climate science events and student assessments for the ClimeTime network is the University of Washington’s Institute for Science + Mathematics Education. Philip Bell, Shauna C. Larson Chair in Learning Sciences and executive director of the institute, said that teaching climate science has long been a challenging issue for educators.

“Many science teachers have not taught about the science related to global climate change before — and have not had opportunities to learn, as professionals, how to teach it,” said Bell. That’s why the sustained, intensive professional learning being offered is so crucial.

“The initiative is offering the support teachers need to help students develop an understanding of the key concepts involved,” said Bell, “which, in turn, helps Washington communities develop, implement and support solutions to the challenges we face.” 

Deb Morrison, a research scientist with the institute, said the main idea behind the professional learning sessions for science educators is the use of real-life, climate-related phenomena and related research data to help students engage in sustained learning about the local and global impacts of climate change. This type of learning, which involves evidence-based critical analysis and thinking about complex systems in ways that are culturally significant, is also embedded in Washington’s state science learning standards. 

“By selecting localized research questions based on real-world phenomena and events — such as coastal hazards along the Long Beach Peninsula, wildfires in the Columbia Basin, dramatic declines in sea star populations, smoky summers in the Puget Sound — educators are making climate change relevant to the lives of their students,” Morrison said. 

In Kelley’s case, that professional learning involved a Saturday workshop in late January with about two dozen other teachers from across the Puget Sound. The educators met at King County’s wastewater treatment plant in Renton for a workshop led by Brad Street, an environmental educator at IslandWood outdoor learning center, a long-standing partner organization of the College of Education. Kelley and her fellow educators learned how students can use the engineering design process to investigate stormwater problems, seek “stakeholder” input and develop solutions, with IslandWood providing additional support in creating and implementing lessons in their individual classrooms. 

A central focus of ClimeTime, Bell and Morrison said, is environmental justice. Communities with fewer resources and less political power typically face the brunt of environmental harms, and the impact of climate change is projected to fall disproportionately on these same communities. Responding should involve supporting community-driven solutions and working to repair relationships that should be in place between people and their environment.

From the selection of phenomena that are the focus of instruction to the inclusion of diverse strategies that improve participation of all students to respectful collaborations with communities that have been systemically underserved by science education, ClimeTime aims to make sure the voices of all communities are heard while increasing access to rich and equitable learning opportunities that relate to community histories, knowledge and interests.

“Our approach to ClimeTime teacher training has been to focus on communities that have historically been underserved by science education,” said Ellen Ebert, director of learning and teaching science/environment and sustainability education at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “The choice of local issues such as forest fire and coastal flooding in changing environments is essential for student, teacher and community relevance.”

Testing solutions

The next day at Lake Forest Park Elementary, Kelley’s students are back to work. Having researched possible solutions, they’re now building models to test how effective each one is in preventing flooding. Sod, peat moss, sponges, aluminum foil and other materials are used in various combinations to simulate the school’s field in a plastic container. 

On the first test, which involves sprinkling 500 milliliters of water over the container to replicate rainfall, the teams find most of the water gets soaked up without draining. Exactly what’s happening in real life. 

But with some revisions to their model for a second test — increasing the slope of the field and using peat moss to help direct water to the drain — Charlie Templeton said his team significantly improved their efficiency, with 300 milliliters draining versus 100 in the first test.

“That’s the difference between a muddy field and one you can still play on,” Charlie says. “A couple little changes can go a long way.”

As the lesson wraps up, Kelley’s students note what worked and what didn’t work and prepare to work on a plan to propose to the school board. 

While the students know the solution won’t benefit themselves directly, Stella Haight says “We still care, if we don’t do something now it’ll just keep getting worse and worse for others.”

Kelley ends by comparing the work of science and engineering to a visit to the hairdresser. While process might look a little messy, the end result can be beautiful.

“That opportunity to make mistakes and keep going is huge,” Kelley says. “That’s how our kids learn they have the power to come up with solutions and make a difference in the world.”

ClimeTime: A snapshot 

Washington’s climate science education initiative, ClimeTime, is a partnership of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, all nine of the state’s educational service districts, a number of community-based organizations, First Nations communities, the University of Washington and other higher education institutions. 

A $4 million allocation from the Washington State Legislature in the initiative’s first year has supported professional development for teachers from all regions across Washington, as well as the development of instructional materials, assessment tasks and evaluation strategies, and facilitation of student events. An additional $3 million annually has been allocated to the effort through 2021.

    Select ClimeTime projects:

  • STEM Seminars that model teaching and learning of hyper-local phenomena in locations around the state organized by Washington Green Schools in collaboration with educational service districts and the UW Climate Impacts Group.

  • Climate Science Storylines workshops from Pacific Education Institute, which showcase hands-on, locally-relevant, outdoor learning investigations educators can use with students.

  • Climate Champions, a board game that will give students an opportunity to explore the connections between climate science and communities throughout Washington state.

  • A session focused on the relationship between agriculture and changing climate hosted at Windy Hills Winery in Ridgefield, with local vintners sharing the impact of climate on their industry.