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Public school teachers in New Jersey add climate change to curriculum

DAVID GURA, HOST:

Well, this fall, New Jersey will become the first state in the nation where all public schools are supposed to teach climate change as part of their curriculum, and that's for all grade levels. The new standards aim to help students understand the causes of climate change and its impacts, but also what students can do to address it. Christa Delaney is an AP environmental science teacher at Egg Harbor Township High School on the state's southern shore, and she's here to talk with us about how she is planning to teach climate change in her classroom. Christa Delaney, thanks very much for being here.

CHRISTA DELANEY: Thank you so much for having me.

GURA: I know that you've taught climate change in your classes in the past. Could you give us an example of a lesson or two that you've used?

DELANEY: There's one lesson that discusses climate impact on crops. South Jersey is a area that has many farms. And this lesson looks at videos of farmers around the area - what they are doing currently to adapt to climate change - as well as students in the classroom are germinating tomato seeds at different conditions affecting these seeds in a lab experiment. And then we plant them outside afterwards and grow them as food for the students to take home.

GURA: Could you just walk us through what that experiment is designed to do and how it works?

DELANEY: So that experiment is designed to have students not only set up a scientific experiment and find data, but also that specific lesson is related to the climate change standard of showing how changes in climate can affect human activity. And so the change in climate of the amount of heat - which we would use a heat lamp on specific plants that are set aside in different parts of the room - as well as higher amounts of precipitation from just being watered more frequently than the other plants. So the students would see how many of these seeds germinated, how tall are the sprouts that come out of these seeds, as well as how many are there? And then since we do plant them outside afterwards, the ones that have germinated, we can also see, are they hardier if they grew under high heat, or are they hardier if they didn't grow underneath high heat? And how can that translate into what our farmers are experiencing right now in New Jersey?

GURA: Christa, I'm someone who, for the life of me, cannot grow tomatoes successfully.

DELANEY: OK.

GURA: If you are subjecting a plant to a lot more heat or giving it a lot more water, what does the plant look like? What effect does that have on tomato plants?

DELANEY: What - the students saw that when we overwatered our plants, that our seeds did not germinate because of the overwatering and that when we placed heat too close to our plants, we saw some germination occur and some didn't occur. So it was 50-50.

GURA: What has this challenge been like for educators like yourself to come up with these standards to think about how to make this resonant, not just for high schoolers, but for students at the middle-school and elementary-school levels?

DELANEY: I think that really touches on a burden that's put on teachers to come up with lessons related to standards. And how can we lessen that burden? If a teacher already has a ready-made lesson with accompanying materials - so worksheets, teacher slides, rubrics - then it really helps the teacher to understand the content, especially if they're not comfortable with it. Let's say they're a art teacher in third grade - maybe not really comfortable with the content, but once they have that lesson, they can look through it and then they can present it to their students.

GURA: Christa, what sort of difference do you think it's going to make having these climate change standards in place in the curriculum in New Jersey?

DELANEY: I think it makes all the difference. I think that, No. 1, it says that climate change is something that New Jersey is really focused on - how to find solutions and how to mitigate the effects of climate change. And we are a coastal state, so we really will see the effects of climate change. And the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection put out a report in 2020 that really highlighted all the different areas that would be affected - from agriculture to our shellfish industry to just flooding events. And once you look at that big picture, you see how important it is to teach students about climate change, and - so they are better prepared for the future.

GURA: Christa Delaney teaches AP environmental science at Egg Harbor Township High School in New Jersey. Christa, thank you very much for joining us.

DELANEY: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILCO SONG, "MANY WORLDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.