These students are taking action to improve climate change education in schools

Students across Canada are back in class this month, but some say there’s a critical topic missing from their lesson plans: climate change. 

Sophia Bi, a Grade 12 student at Lord Byng Secondary in Vancouver, and Aishwarya Puttur, a Grade 11 student at Bluevale Collegiate in Waterloo, Ont., are working to change that. Both are involved in campaigns to improve climate curriculum in Canadian public schools.

While the subject comes up in science classes, Bi said she can’t recall hearing about systemic issues such as climate policy or the need for an energy transition. 

“All these really complex issues are never really discussed in any depth in schools,” Bi told Laura Lynch, host of What On Earth. “Mostly, it’s a one-time mention. Maybe it’s one unit, you learn it and then you move on.”

This means many young people don’t grasp the issue’s importance, said Bi.

Ellen Field, an assistant professor in the faculty of education at Lakehead University in Orillia, Ont., said climate change education is uneven from province to province. 

Her research, currently under review with the Journal of Curriculum Studies, shows that most climate change education is found in Grade 11 and 12 elective courses. Some provinces include climate change in mandatory science or social studies courses, but it’s not well integrated in various subjects or in the different grades. 

“The overall focus is on understanding, mostly, the climate science, and less on climate solutions or on taking climate actions,” Field said.

She said Canada must improve climate change education in order to meet its obligations under the Paris Accord. 

“When Canada signed the Paris climate agreement, we agreed to Article 12, which within it says that as a signatory, we agree to enhance climate change education,” Field said. “To date, ministries of education have not released policy statements that guide climate change education.”

Field’s previous research reveals almost half of students from Grades 7 to 12 believe climate change is happening and think it’s caused by humans, but don’t believe that anything can be done to solve it. Field said this has an impact on young people’s mental health. 

“Having this mindset may affect youth in terms of how they frame their future quality of life opportunities or possibilities,” she said.

Bi is active with a student-led group called Climate Education Reform B.C., which has developed a list of six actions to improve education about climate change, including consulting with students and developing resources for teachers. 

Puttur, meanwhile, is part of a global campaign called Teach the Teacher, which empowers students to hold presentations with teachers at their school about ways to improve climate education.

“We need to make sure [climate change education] is no longer a privilege, but rather something that is available to all,” said Puttur. “And it needs to be one that includes the intersectionality of the climate crisis — so how climate change intersects with racial issues, with gender issues, with issues of the 2SLGBTQ+ community.”

Field said provinces should review curriculum and ensure that different aspects of climate change are taught in a variety of mandatory courses throughout the grades. Consulting with youth and Indigenous groups on curriculum, she said, is vital.

“Young people will be living with the decisions that adults make in the next five years for the rest of their lives,” Field said. “They should at least have a seat at the table where these decisions get made.”

Neither Bi nor Puttur is waiting to be invited to share their perspective with decision-makers. Bi’s group, Climate Education Reform B.C., is set to meet with B.C.’s minister of education in October, while Puttur is hoping the Teach the Teacher program can be delivered in her school district later this fall. 

Both say a focus on solutions and the power of collective action is what’s needed. 

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