“Youth today can be traumatized by what they see happening in the world,” she said. “It’s our job as educators to equip them with the knowledge that they can not only survive, but bring forward a sustainable future. It’s not all doom and gloom.”
Yeghoian’s students at Design Tech High are designing 3-D neighborhood models where all the buildings have rainwater-catchment systems, trees and shrubs are native and planted away from structures, major streets skirt the perimeter so the inside streets are safer for pedestrians and bicycling, and the buildings are all energy-efficient—general eco-friendly improvements that are good for the environment overall and can reduce the risk and intensity of wildfire.
California’s State Board of Education adopted a K-12 environmental-education curriculum in 2010, and environmental principles are part of the state’s new science standards as well as the history and social-science standards. For younger grades, that means studying composting, recycling, wildlife habitats, and other ways people can protect the environment. High-school students study topics like sea-level rise, agribusiness, and other more complex subjects.
The state’s new science standards, called the Next Generation Science Standards, emphasize hands-on science projects and critical thinking over rote memorization. Some teachers said that current natural disasters offer a perfect way to combine science lessons with real-life events, which students might be following on the news or are curious about anyway.
And while natural disasters—and the environmental standards themselves— aren’t always related to climate change, human-caused environmental shifts are hard to ignore, Yeghoian said.
“For people who experience these events, it can be incredibly traumatic,” she said. “But witnessing these events—these days, on a regular basis—can also be stressful. We tell students, yes, these disasters are a fact of life. And yes, it’s going to get worse. But here’s what we can do about it. We can become more resilient as a society.”
In the Lake Tahoe area, where the temperature can swing 50 degrees in one day, elementary-science teacher Laurie Scheibner is surrounded by natural disaster, extreme weather, and climate change teaching opportunities, she said. In her lessons in Tahoe-Truckee Unified classrooms, where she teaches science at several elementary schools, students measure the snowpack and compare it to historical data, check the temperature of Lake Tahoe over time, and even monitor bear activity to gauge the impact of humans on ursine habits.
When the Oroville Dam spillway threatened to collapse during last winter’s heavy rains, Scheibner had her students study rivers, flooding, and how a home could be engineered to protect from deluges.
“Studying real events like that takes the lesson out of the textbook,” she said. “It’s not abstract. It’s part of their own lives, so there’s a reason for studying it. For students who aren’t usually into science, this makes them interested. And for kids who are already curious, it gives them a chance to dive deeper.”