M.E.S. Thesis Research

Climate Change Education in the United States: An analysis of climate science inclusion in K-12 state science standards

Madeline Goodwin, M.E.S.

Executive Summary (The full thesis is available here.)

Research has shown a lack of climate science concept comprehension among high school students and adults in the United States. With 97% of U.S. schoolchildren educated in public schools, classrooms present an optimal location for improving climate change knowledge. This thesis assessed the current presence of climate science in state science standards, to answer these research questions:

  • To what extent do state science standards for U.S. K-12 education include climate change?
    • Which states include climate science concepts in their science standards?
    • What do science education professionals consider the 3-5 most important concepts about climate change for high school students to understand?
    • Are these concepts included in science standards? If so, in which states?

Primary Recommendation: Adopt the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)!

Using 15 concepts relating to climate science (Table 1), I identified three concepts that science education professionals considered most important:

  • Impact of human activities on the global climate
  • Impact of climate change on earth systems
  • Impact of climate change on living organisms

When revising state science standards, these concepts should be prioritizedThese three concepts were top priorities across every category assessed.

Concept inclusion among state standards was assessed by awarding one point for each concept, generating Table 2.

The overall goal is quality nationwide climate science education. Some options:

  • Adopt the Next Generation Science Standards nation-wide
  • Issue a federal mandate on quality climate education
  • De-politicize the process: Give non-partisan state agencies control over standards; allow school boards, not state legislature, to vote on standards
  • State-by-state/district-by-district NGSS adoption
    • Lobbying by national organizations and parent, teacher, or community groups can accelerate this process
  • Expand funding for professional development opportunities for teachers – enable teacher education on current climate science

Table 1. Concepts Used

Climate consequences of burning fossil fuels
Difference between weather and climate
Effect of oceans on the global climate
Geographical distribution of climate zones
Greenhouse gas effect
Impact of climate change on earth systems
Impact of climate change on living organisms
Impact of climate change on risk from natural hazards and disasters
Impact of human activity on the global climate
Interpretation of climate models
Natural causes of climate change
Ocean acidification
Relationship between energy flows and the global climate
The carbon cycle
The history of Earth’s climate

Table 2. States according to concept scoring category. The “Gold Standard” states have all adopted the Next Generation Science Standards.

Category Number of Concepts States
Gold Standard 15 AR, CA, CT, DE, HI, IL, IA, KS, KY, MD, MI, NV, NJ, OR, RI, VT, WA, WV, D.C.
High Performance 13-14 ID, MA, SC
Acceptable 11-12 AL, CO, GA, OH
Inadequate 9-10 AZ, MN, OK, UT
Poor Performance 1-8 AK, FL, IN, LA, ME, MS, MO, MT, NE, NH, NM, NY, NC, ND, PA, SD, TN, TX, VA, WI, WY

For questions or comments, please contact Madeline Goodwin.

The full thesis is available here.