In The NEK, Climate Change Education Gets Down To Earth

Oct 29, 2014
Originally published on October 29, 2014 6:03 pm

New federal science education standards adopted in Vermont require that students learn about climate change. So teachers are starting to create lesson plans with hands-on activities about weather patterns.

Some are getting that training deep in the woods of the Northeast Kingdom.

The Northwoods Stewardship Center is nearly hidden in 1,500 acres of forest. Its mission is to educate landowners and young people about how to conserve forest land. 

About eight local science teachers take a muddy walk on a brisk fall day to learn about climate change. They see how some trees are thriving at the expense of others, and how a former farm is returning to woodland.

The question is, how will changing temperatures affect that botanical evolution?

Inside the rustic wooden center, operations director Jason Benoit talks about how warming temperatures are affecting northern zones.

“Certainly temperature change is one, but there’s a lot of secondary effects," he says. "For instance, soil drying [is] the big one. And just the number of cool days … because species like sugar maple, for instance, needs three months of cold in order to germinate."

Invasive insects are another new threat, he adds.

Lyndon State College meteorology professor Bruce Berryman paints a more global picture in his PowerPoint lecture. He says even if we reversed the harmful effects of carbon pollution today, it could take centuries for the earth to recover. Berryman admits that teaching about climate change can upset some skeptical school boards and parents.

“You need to be really careful what you say in the classroom because they go home and tell their parents, and the parents can just not be happy,” he warns.

But Berryman says it’s crucial to teach future generations about how increased energy in the earth’s atmosphere is leading to unprecedented storms — even if that news sometimes depresses kids so much that they become apathetic. The education director of the Northwoods Stewardship Center, Maria Young, says one solution to that problem is to hold classes outdoors. If students can see, feel, even smell their environment, she says, they will want to protect it.

“And through that starts learning and breaking down misconceptions,” Young says. “But it really is at the dirt level or the ground level, and that part is not depressing at all.”

But it’s not all about dirt. A lesson plan can literally be up in the air. Teachers visiting the center learn how budding scientists can use everyday school supplies to construct anemometers that can measure wind speed.

Irasburg Elementary science teachers Kristi LaFleur and Katrina McCullough stick a paper cup on a pencil base and make a pinwheel from straws. 

"We’re reinforcing our straws so they don’t bend,” they say, putting their contraption together.

It’s supposed to withstand the gale force wind from a hair dryer, and it does — sort of.

As paper cup pinwheels spin around, teachers holding stopwatches count rotations per minute. Projects like this, they hope, will encourage science students to learn about how weather is changing — around the globe, and in their own backyards.

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