Like it or not, climate change is leaving its mark. Polar ice caps are melting, and sea levels are rising. Earth is on a trajectory to increase its overall temperature about 2.7°C (roughly 5°F) above pre-industrial levels. In Oregon, that means larger and more frequent wildfires, extreme heat waves and rising sea levels, according to the state’s fifth biennial climate assessment on the latest climate science within the state.
Oregon Educators for Climate Education (OECE), a group of educators throughout Eugene School District 4J, proposes that the best way to address this issue for future generations is through education, and the earlier the better.
OECE members range from high school teachers to administrators to University of Oregon professors. They share a particular sense of urgency with their students: Climate change is real, its effects are devastating, and the next generation should be prepared to meet the challenge head on.
“A big focus of ours in recent years has been, ‘How do we have more climate education at the schools?’ And there’s nothing saying we can’t do that,” says Jenoge Sora Khatter, co-director of OECE.
This is not the first time an education curriculum has come before the Legislature. For example, in 2017, the Oregon Legislature enacted Senate Bill 13, otherwise known as the Tribal and Shared Histories Bill. This law directed the Oregon Department of Education to create K-12 Native American tribal and shared histories curriculum for Oregon’s public schools and provide development strategies for educators. Additionally, SB 13 directed the ODE to provide funds for each of Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes to create individual, place-based curriculum.
OECE members are appealing to the Oregon Legislature to require a climate education curriculum in a similar way.
“We realized that unless there was a requirement at the district level or the state level, there just wasn’t going to be climate education going on in the way that these students were asking for across our system,” says Khatter, who has a doctorate in education from the UO and is a social studies specialist in the 4J school district.
In March 2018, the Washington state Legislature approved a similar climate action plan for K-12. ClimeTime sets aside $10 million for that state’s nine educational service districts to train science teachers in climate science education, as well as development of educational materials and student engagement activities. More recently, Washington’s Legislature allocated another $6 million for the 2022-23 biennium.
While such legislation was a significant step forward in climate education within K-12, OECE’s goal is to go a step beyond that by making climate education interdisciplinary and not just a topic for the science classroom.
Sarah Stapleton, OECE member and assistant professor at the UO College of Education, says that because climate change affects all facets of our lives, virtually all subject areas can tie into climate education. Whether this is through social studies, arts, literature or science, Stapleton says that a climate focus can be integrated into any educational subject you can think of.
“We need to urgently raise awareness across the entire education sector that climate change is something we must teach now, that we must teach in all grades and in all disciplines,” Stapleton says. “Another piece of this is helping teachers feel safe to teach this,” she adds.
As an instructor for a Teaching for Climate Activism course at UO, Stapleton has observed the hesitancy that some future educators have about community pushback for teaching a climate-focused curriculum. With climate change such a politically charged phrase, not all areas and school districts within Oregon are receptive to their children being taught about climate change in the classroom.
Stapleton says, “That’s why we’re pushing for legislation at the top to say, ‘You are supported from the top to do this work.’”
Another sector of the education system that OECE members are working to include is special education. OECE member, 4J special education teacher and autism specialist Niels Pasternak explains that these programs “rarely get science, let alone climate education in our program’s list at all.”
The group spoke to Oregon state Sen. Floyd Prozanski and state Rep. Marty Wilde in January about its climate education package. Khatter says the feedback they received from that meeting was “hopeful and optimistic,” and since then the group has been working on refining the demands in their package to determine what is the highest priority for legislation.
Another key point revealed in talks with legislators is that the climate education plan is not meant to be “just another mandate,” as Sarah Ruggiero Kirby, OECE member and 4J science educator, puts it. Rather, she clarifies that, “It’s on us, as we create this, to think of ways that climate education can be integrated into existing curriculum,” and not adopting a new curriculum. OECE is “looking at ways to take what they’re doing already and insert these concepts, these ideas.”
She gives the example of if a teacher is doing a reading exercise, then “here’s a comparable reading material that is about climate change or about climate solutions.”
OECE has developed a student advisory council to create a more direct line of communication between students and educators. This is a group of students across Oregon partnered with OECE through Partners for Sustainable Schools — a nonprofit organization in Eugene working to integrate sustainability throughout all aspects of K-12 — with the goal of getting as many students as possible involved in sending feedback on climate education. The group is also teaching students who to contact from their school and legislative districts to push this legislation forward. Our Future, the youth leadership program that Partners for Sustainable Schools has launched, is completely volunteer-based, but students are paid a stipend to take on this project.
Khatter says the student advisory group deals with more of a political-activist angle than OECE does, since it would be a conflict of interest for some of the educators within OECE to go the political route.
The student advisory council has met several times, and Khatter says they are excited to run a social media campaign, produce posters that students across the state can download and put up around their schools, and prepare a civic action toolkit for this and future education-based legislative endeavors. They have also created a survey to gauge the public’s opinion on the key components in the OECE’s climate education planned curriculum.
The group recently received a $25,000 grant from the Gray Family Foundation, which provides grants to Oregon teachers and organizations working to educate kids about the Oregon environment. This grant will go toward a summer curriculum summit that OECE will be putting together to workshop and coach K-12 educators through the place-based climate education lesson plans. The goal by the end of the summit is to upload the lesson plans to the Open Oregon Educational Resources website, a public domain that hosts educational materials for students, teachers and researchers to use freely.
According to Khatter, the revised climate education package missed the 2022 legislative short session, but OECE members are hopeful that it will be ready by next year’s regular session. Additionally, a few members from OECE, including Khatter, attended the Oregon Education Association’s Representative Assembly in mid April to present this revised package to a group of more than 40,000 educators to ask for support for the legislation. Kirby says they were met with “overwhelming support,” with 99 percent of the state delegates voting in favor of the package.
Educators can take the Oregon Climate Education Survey at tinyurl.com/oeces. You can also visit the OECE website at OregonClimateEd.org.