How Nebraska's Climate Education Could Shape the Future
By: Mia Hartley
Tick. Tick. Tick.
It’s a sound that echoes louder and louder in the mind of Tela Hamric. The 13-year-old can’t shake the feeling that time is running out.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Seven years, 66 days, 13 hours, 54 minutes and some change – the time remaining, scientists say, until the effects of climate change become irreversible.
A student at Prairie Hill Learning Center, a Montessori school nestled in the Roca, Nebraska, countryside, Hamric has devoted many days learning about the environment. Motivated by Prairie Hill’s extensive climate education curriculum, Hamric and her younger peers already are becoming prominent climate activists in the Lincoln community.
Time, they believe, is a luxury they do not have.
“We only have eight years before stuff gets really bad, and nobody is listening to the young people,” Hamric said.
For Jordan Hope, Prairie Hill’s executive director, Nebraska can be a tricky place to craft a climate curriculum.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The impact of climate change can be felt across the state, from Kimball to Omaha. A report, published in 2014 by the applied climate science group in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, details many serious consequences of climate change facing Nebraska. Among them: increased average temperatures, higher precipitation levels, decreased soil moisture and an increased likelihood of flooding.
As time whizzes past and the pressures of finding climate change solutions continue to rise, education may be an important tool to mitigate its effects.
In Nebraska, teachers, administrators and state officials use a variety of means to educate students about the impacts of climate change both globally and in their own backyard. The current state standards for K-12 educators, adopted in 2017 by the Nebraska State Board of Education, include the phrase “climate change” five times.
Of those five, two state that students shall not be assessed over climate change curriculum. Yet, teachers must teach climate change by allowing students to gather and analyze climate data and then make evidence-based claims and predictions about the topic. The previous standards for science, adopted in 2010, did not include the phrase “climate change.”
The science curriculum standards are “three-dimensional, according to Betsy Barent, the K-12 Interim Science Curriculum Specialist for Lincoln Public Schools. Barent said it’s more than just science concepts and facts. “It’s about how we do science, why science matters and the themes that run through science,” she said.
This vision for science, both statewide and nationally, is aimed at producing a science-literate generation of students.
“Kids are figuring out what’s going on around them, you know, rather than just sitting and learning about it,” Barent said.
The current language, Barent said, makes no strong assertions that climate change is real or human-induced — an intentional move by the Nebraska State Board of Education.
“We want kids to become scientifically-literate citizens and critical consumers of that knowledge, so that they come to those conclusions because of their own sense-making,” Barent said.
Nebraska’s grade: C+.
The grades of other neighboring states vary, with Iowa receiving a B+, Missouri a C- and Kansas a B+.
Since Nebraska is an open control state, each of its 272 school districts is responsible for adopting its own curriculum. The Nebraska Department of Education plays no role in the development of curriculum, which allows schools to customize the curriculum to their own needs.
Floyd Doughty, a science teacher at Lincoln North Star High School, said the curriculum could be improved.
“I think there’s enough to do the job that needs to be done in a way of conveying the information, but I think you could do better,” Doughty said.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
From impassioned discussions to engaging with nature and analyzing data to make scientific conclusions, teachers like Mitch Bern at Lincoln North Star High School provide a unique approach in showing students the importance of giving back to nature.
In 2019, Bern led a tree-planting initiative with his classes, growing trees from seeds combined with climate change and ecology lessons. His goal was to give students a memorable experience.
“It’s not always doom and gloom,” he said. “We can change things, we can reduce the impact, we can turn around some of the damage that we’ve done.”
Bern isn’t the only teacher taking matters into his own hands. Mary Morrow, a science educator at Lincoln East High School, is using NASA software to help students learn about varying aspects of climate change.
Her students are trained to use the high-level software that she says fosters an environment of scientific understanding. By changing variables such as snowfall, precipitation and air circulation patterns, students could make informed predictions about the earth’s future climate.
“I think education is the most powerful tool you have,” Morrow said. “When students really understand it, that’s how they’re going to be able to make changes.”
Rachael Arens, a former Omaha Northwest High School teacher, also believes education is a powerful tool – and she is devoting her life to it. In her days as an Omaha educator, her students built solar panels, constructed rain gardens, implemented a school-wide composting program, co-wrote a bill to reduce plastic bag usage in Nebraska and created a Native American garden to pay homage to the land that once belonged to indigenous people.
“I think that youth have such a powerful voice and position that maybe 10-15 years ago wasn’t as valued as it is today,” Arens said.
Arens, an Albert Einstein Educator at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Office, said teaching climate change is a matter of social justice.
“When certain pieces of the puzzle fall out of place, we all suffer,” Arens said. “I want to make sure that we act again against some of these injustices and provide tools to students to be able to see injustices within their own communities.”
The classroom isn’t the only place where education occurs. Outside resources like Nebraska Game and Parks are doing its part to make sure everyone — from toddlers, teachers and the elderly — is connected to the world around them.
Amber Schiltz, a wildlife education program manager, connects students to nature through a variety of outdoor education programs such as Nebraska Bird Month, the Outdoor Discovery Program and Reptile Day.
For students, the opportunity to get outside and learn real-world skills builds “ecological literacy,” Schiltz said.
“It’s critical to let them just play, and let them love and let them build that connection,” she said.
Schiltz’s passion for nature is closely tied to her growing concern about climate change — and she thinks an improved climate education may be the answer.
“We’re kind of in our infancy of getting the ball rolling on some big initiatives such as climate change,” said Schiltz. She is currently in the research and development stages of launching a climate change initiative at the Wildlife Education Program.
“The students living in Nebraska right now are going to be the future leaders of Nebraska, and it’s really important they understand what climate change is, how it’s affecting our state, but more importantly what they can do about it,” Schiltz said.
Try as they might, public school educators can only do so much. Limited by the quantity of material required and a highly-structured curriculum, some public school teachers do not have the time to teach climate change. That’s what makes Prairie Hill’s comprehensive climate curriculum so unique. Starting at age 5, children learn about composting, vermiculture and recycling.
“If we don’t help our children know what’s going on, they can’t do anything about it,” Hope said.
Although Prairie Hill’s climate education is extensive, Hope said the students are up to the challenge.
“There’s a really powerful ability to step outside of yourself as a young person and to see what needs to be done and not be tied down by the restrictions of adulting,” Hope said.
Prairie Hill’s extensive climate education has spurred involvement and activism both inside and outside the classroom. A group of six Prairie Hill students wrote and presented a bill to Nebraska lawmakers asking them to consider the impacts of climate change on Nebraska and to take action to prevent it.
Hamric, along with her classmates Lane Albrecht, Clio Baird, Willa Hamric, Hathaway Hutchings, and UNL students and activists, testified before the Nebraska Legislature in January 2020. Rick Kolowski of Omaha was the first to endorse the bill.
After listening to the students, senators rejected the bill.
“All (they) saw this as was a school project that a couple kids were doing about something they didn’t truly understand,” Hamric said.
Clio Baird, daughter of Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird, believes climate education needs to become a priority sooner than later. “I think it’s important because we have a limited amount of time and there will be irreversible changes to our planet,” she said.
“But we can’t do it alone because we don’t have enough power to do that. We will have a big role in it but we need adults to listen to us and to take us seriously.”
The theme of feeling ignored was a common thread among the students. Despite their youthfulness, these students feel the climate clock ticking as if it were their own heartbeat. This contributes to a feeling of anxiety among many.
For Hamric, climate change makes her feel three basic things: anger, fear and sadness.
Rather than allowing these feelings to consume her, however, Hamric is choosing to use them to her advantage.
Luckily for Hamric, Prairie Hill is teaching her how to harness that anger and turn it into change.
With Prairie Hill’s emphasis on collaboration and active learning, teachers are able to give their students real-life experiences to help them learn important lessons. Hope says allowing students to indulge in tendencies such as talking and moving allows for a different experience than a typical public school.
“Rather than fighting those natural instincts that all humans have, at a Montessori school we use those to our advantage,” said Hope.
And the students are learning valuable life lessons.
“We’re learning a lot of things that are going to help us do any sort of activism and fight climate change,” Hamric said. “I’m learning how to do public speaking, how to be passionate about something, how to reach out and make a change in my local community.”
While these are impressive skills for a 13-year-old, the reality is that this level of climate education is fairly unique to the Prairie Hill Learning Center. New science standards will be implemented in 2023, meaning there is still three years until climate education in Nebraska can be substantially altered. Until then, it will be the responsibility of school districts, educators and students to decide whether their climate education curriculum will change.