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The educational road to a Green New Deal: Teach science and let kids play

2019-09-06

If we want to cultivate the scientists, farmers, inventors and engineers we need to make a Green New Deal a reality, we must reassess our lackluster approach to science education and prioritize early exposure to both science and the natural world — especially for groups that are underrepresented in science historically. (Getty Images)

As another school year starts up again, presidential candidates are proposing trillions of dollars in urgently needed “Green New Deal” investments in infrastructure, renewables and agriculture. But no one is talking about investing in equitable K-12 science education — even as a substantial portion of Americans don’t even believe the science of climate change.

That’s a problem.

If we want to cultivate the scientists, farmers, inventors and engineers we need to make a Green New Deal a reality, we must reassess our lackluster approach to science education and prioritize early exposure to both science and the natural world — especially for groups that are underrepresented in science historically.

As two elementary school teachers in New York, we’ve seen first hand how science has been sidelined thanks to the high stakes attached to “core” subjects of literacy and math. In elementary schools, the amount and quality of science students get exposed to varies depending on the resources and location of the school.

There some schools with robust science programs and outdoor classrooms, but those are few and far between. On the flip side, we know of too many elementary schools where students have science just once a week for 45 minutes, or never (even though it might nominally be on schedules).

We’re a good example of this inconsistency; we come from one school with two dedicated science labs and a nature infused playground, and another in which students have science just 45 minutes a week and zero access to nature. As happens in too many schools, those 45 minutes can become zero minutes if the science teacher is pulled to cover other classes.

Meanwhile, in many schools without science “specialists,” classroom teachers are expected to squeeze in science in between 90 minute blocks of literacy and math. Too often, science is the part of the day that gets abandoned when other blocks go longer than expected or special programming intervenes. Because science is materials-intensive, it also often gets cut when budget crunched schools fail to provide the necessary resources, leaving teachers to cobble together instruction from videos and worksheets. Meanwhile, our curriculum largely ignores climate science, even though every single living thing our students learn about in the course of their education is impacted by the climate crisis.

And this is all in New York, a state with majority Democratic leadership that rolled out new science standards last year.

Science instruction in red states that have systematically defunded their public school systems is, by all accounts, in far worse shape. Not only do school systems have to contend with shrinking budgets and resources, but also in some states science itself is under attack. So much so, that in 2018, the National Science Teachers Association released a statement describing teachers “facing pressure” to ”eliminate or de-emphasize climate change science” and even to “introduce non-scientific ideas” into the science classroom.

In 2017, a Koch-funded group called Heartland mailed a pamphlet called “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” to science teachers across the country. And in Michigan, one conservative state senator actually argued that teaching climate science was dangerous because it might motivate “an increasingly large number of our students to pursue...careers in meteorology and environmental sciences.”

Of course, that’s exactly what we need: kids inspired and prepared to become scientists, no matter what state they live in. But when our students don’t get exposed to meaningful, inquiry-based science in elementary school it makes it much harder for them to do so. A lack of early experience with science sets children up for frustration and discouragement in middle school science classes, where they are expected to have background content knowledge and familiarity with the scientific process.

Needless to say, the students most likely to feel unprepared for higher level science courses are those from schools in already marginalized, under-resourced communities.

It should be clear that all of our students need more high quality, hands-on science instruction and exposure to climate science in elementary school and beyond. But it’s not just a curricular issue that excludes some children from a green new future. Our students also need more time to freely explore the natural world.

As elementary school teachers in an urban setting, we see first hand how hard it is to nurture children’s relationship with nature without sufficient outdoor play time and access to nature. It requires a great deal of planning, money and intention to include outdoor play in a stimulating natural environment for city schools, and many schools do not have the ability, resources or inclination to do so.

Too many children, especially struggling students who need it the most, have little to no unstructured play time during the school day and little exposure to natural spaces, both of which research shows are essential for the development of the social-emotional skills they need to thrive. The disparity continues after school, too: Many of our neediest students go to mostly indoor afterschool programs until it gets dark every day.

If we want to raise a generation of conscious stewards who will not only become the engineers and scientists of the future, but also, who will champion environmental justice, we need the time and resources to cultivate our students’ relationship with nature.

Missing out on both outdoor play and consistent science learning is a tragedy for kids and for our nation. If there is anything that will define our students’ futures, it is the climate crisis, but our students are being denied the tools and experiences they need to be part of the solution; a just transition to a green economy.

That must change. Not tomorrow, but today.

Olenick is a public elementary school science teacher and activist with Indivisible Nation BK in Brooklyn. Brezler is a public school teacher, Democratic Socialist and activist in Westchester.