Integrating Climate Science into High School STEM Courses

YARROW AXFORD ( is an associate professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL; AIDA AWAD (, is an educational consultant and adjunct instructor at To The Cloud EDU, Buckeye, AZ; and AMY PRATT ( is the assistant dean for community partnerships at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.

An intriguing study published last spring in Nature Climate Change points to one way that teachers can affect public understanding of climate change, even without teaching about climate. It turns out that a student's interest in science during junior high has a big effect on whether he or she, regardless of political affiliation (Motta, 2018), trusts scientific authorities on climate change (like NASA and NOAA) many years later as an adult. What a validation of the power of K-12 science teachers!

Many readers of In the Trenches promote understanding of climate change by teaching climate science in their classrooms. The topic is a natural fit for Earth and environmental science classes. But in a recent workshop for high school teachers, we argued that climate science also provides exciting opportunities to teach NGSS-aligned concepts in high school classes about other STEM subjects. Climate science is intensely interdisciplinary and provides meaningful, realworld examples of core ideas, science and engineering practices, and cross-cutting themes that can enliven traditional courses in chemistry, physics, and biology. In June, we convened a two-day workshop for high school teachers on "Integrating Climate Science into Your STEM Courses" at Northwestern University. Twenty-two high school teachers from Chicago and its suburbs attended, and twelve Northwestern scientists — faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate students — contributed content. Open access to the workshop website, including all workshop materials and activities are available here:

Our advertisement described the workshop goals as follows: "Northwestern Earth scientists who conduct diverse field, lab, and computational climate research will (a) provide an overview and Q&A regarding current scientific knowledge of climate change, (b) share the questions and methods they focus on in their research, (c) bring their research to life through active engagement and hands-on activities, and (d) work in small groups with participants to develop climate-focused classroom activities that address Next Generation Science Standards for a wide range of STEM courses, including but not limited to biology, chemistry, and physics." In response to a pre-event survey of teacher goals, we also focused especially on: (1) providing practice working with primary datasets, (2) exploring quantitative approaches, and (3) compiling an online list of high-quality resources that participants could use for developing classroom activities. We also aimed for intellectual diversity among both contributors and participants, so that a wide range of core ideas and science practices could be addressed. Designing the workshop was a collaborative effort between a university climate scientist, Dr. Yarrow Axford from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, the Office of Community Education Partnerships (OCEP), and master educator, Aida Awad. Axford is a paleoclimatologist and NSF-CAREER award recipient. OCEP, part of the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern, bridges the research, practice, and service missions of the university to create initiatives that improve learning and well-being in our home communities of Evanston and Chicago, but that can be shared and scaled far beyond. Collaboration meant that workshop content reflected cutting edge research and modern pedagogical practice and allowed us to reach a highly engaged group of teacher participants via established OCEP community networks.

The workshop offered three main components over two full days. After an "anticipation guide" icebreaker activity, the first morning was devoted to a keynote lecture. Axford, the organizing researcher, spoke about the motivation and methods of her own research in polar paleoclimate, while also providing an up-to-date overview of key points about the physical causes and evidence for climate change. She followed up the keynote with an NGSS-aligned activity on "climate versus weather" that guided teachers in taking a close look at iconic climate datasets like the global surface temperature record. Numerous NGSS cross-cutting concepts (for example, scale, modeling, prediction, and cycling of matter and energy) are natural to incorporate into this exercise, which also drives home a core concept (the difference between climate and weather) that is essential to understanding climate change.

The first afternoon and next morning were used for breakout sessions, in which participants selected two topical workshops to attend. Topics included ocean acidification, glaciers and sea ice, reconstructing past climate, modeling simple and complex systems using Excel, and solar power. Workshops integrated hands-on activities ranging from changing the pH of water in a beaker with carbon dioxide exhaled through a straw, to building a simple solar cell using blackberry juice, to learning to identify different species of fossil insects and using an algebraic model to calculate the past temperatures different species assemblages might record.

The final afternoon of the workshop was set aside for group discussions of classroom implementation, including working in small groups to make concrete plans for lesson development, and a plenary discussion of broader issues associated with teaching climate science. Teachers and researchers collaborated in these discussions. Pre- and post-workshop surveys were used to assess workshop outcomes. The most successful aspects of the workshop were related to our primary goals. For example, 100% of participants reported after the workshop that they are either much (71%) or somewhat (29%) more likely to employ mathematical/quantitative approaches in their classrooms. 100% of participants are much (86%) or somewhat (14%) more likely to engage students in analyzing primary datasets. And 100% of participants reported that their confidence in climate science content knowledge increased either greatly (91%) or somewhat (9%).

Qualitative survey feedback reinforced that access to vetted, high-quality online teaching resources, including primary datasets, was a highly valued outcome for teachers. Participant feedback also emphasized the value of working directly with practicing climate scientists, in comments like the following: "It was so exciting to be working with the scientists directly and I look forward to having a continued connection with them as I work to integrate this new information into my curriculum." "To hear directly from experts ... is absolutely priceless." "It's great to have access to so many scientists! I'll be making solar cells in my classroom and will likely provide more data about core samples when we talk about climate and evolution." "We have received a well-curated set of authentic materials that real scientists use for their work."

Building connections between middle school and high school STEM teachers and climate scientists/researchers through workshop experiences plays a vital role in the creation of a more scientifically educated/understanding populace, specifically in regard to climate change. In recognition of the value of interactions between K–12 teachers and university scientists, we envisioned this workshop as the first of a series of researcher-teacher events designed to provide sustained support for integrating complex climate science into high school courses. The June 2018 workshop was supported by funding from the NSF Office of Polar Programs, and workshop materials are publicly available at

To express interest in receiving information about future workshops in this series on integrating climate science into your STEM courses, please visit: