Snapshot: This case explores the challenges of teaching about climate change in a community where a large portion of the residents work in the petroleum industry. Should science teachers accommodate local concerns about the dangers of demonizing the very industry their town’s economy relies on? Or teach climate changes as the threat that scientists tell us it is?
Case Description: A new science teacher at Maple Rivers High School, Ms. Maguire started the year doing what she had been trained to do—help students not only understand the science they were learning but to see how their lessons connected to their world and their community. When it came time to teach climate science, however, Ms. Maguire was hit with a surprise. Although she knew that many of the resident of Maple Rivers—including many of her students’ parents—she didn’t expect so many of her students to take offense to her lessons on climate change. And she certainly didn’t expect complaints from her students' parents to land her in the principal's office.
This case explores the tensions that teachers face in teaching climate change given the often contentious and politically polarizing debate over climate science. Especially in communities whose economy still relies on fossil fuels, how should teachers teach climate change? Do they take into account the views of the local community? Possibly adding a unit about petroleum engineering or coal scrubbing technology? Or does any accommodation represent dangerous pandering to people out of step with the consensus of the scientific community?
While this case will work well for educators struggling with teaching climate change in a warming world that continues to rely on fossil fuels, it raises perennial questions facing teachers and school leaders across the country. In particular, how far should the beliefs and values of the local community in which a school is embedded inform curricular and other teaching decisions?
We also have a reader's theater version of this case. We often use this version for professional development workshops or one-off events. In this version, participants voice the different characters in the case.
For a carefully written, real-life discussion of this dilemma from the point of view of a high school science teacher and his students, read this New York Times story, “Climate Science Meets a Stubborn Obstacle: Students.”
And if you liked that article, please check out this follow-up piece that surveys the numerous, strong reactions readers had to the original story.