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Climate change part of lesson plans

Although Al Gore made a splash in the global warming debate with his recent documentary, the film is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to teaching the issue in the classroom.

Ashland classrooms up through the university level are tackling climate change, and teachers want to do more. But the constantly evolving research and multifaceted nature of the subject makes it a challenge.

State standards dictate that middle school students study climate change in the sixth grade, as part of their earth science curriculum. High school and college students study it only if they sign up for specific classes.

"We're really just scratching the surface, because it's a huge topic, and it requires a huge amount of knowledge about how the world works," said Eric Sandrock, who teaches sixth grade science.

Gaining ground

Discussions about global warming are sporadic throughout the year, taught whenever they relate to the main subject, such as weather cycles. Students' science textbooks do not even mention climate change, as they were last replaced in 2002, Sandrock said. Instead, he uses Current Science magazine, which features weekly stories on climate change written just for kids, such a recent cover story entitled "Meltdown" about disappearing ice caps.

One of the biggest challenges to teaching at the middle school level is that kids lack the perspective and sense of scale to understand the impact of climate change, and questions about when Ashland will be underwater are not uncommon, Sandrock said.

In seventh and eighth grades, lessons on chemistry, physics, botany and zoology take precedence, according to the state. Teachers who want to address climate change must squeeze it in between other requirements.

Lynn Kunstman, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at Ashland Middle School, doesn't teach a formal unit on climate change, nor does she show Gore's film in class, although more than half of her students have seen it and show more interest in the topic.

"Unless the state curriculum goals change, it's hard enough to get through what we need to in a year's time," she said.

The debate over global warming and humans' role in it is controversial, but it doesn't seem to be in his middle school classroom, Sandrock said.

"It doesn't come up in Ashland," he said. "Once in a blue moon, when I'm doing an evolution unit, I'll have a student ask to be excused, but the idea that global warming isn't happening just doesn't come up."

When climate change is taught in a science classroom, students must provide evidence for their arguments, he said. In his classroom, he teaches that the majority of scientists believe there is evidence for rapid global warming, and that opposing arguments have "huge holes."

Beyond the science

Sandrock said he would like to see climate change taught as an interdisciplinary unit, incorporating politics, geography and economics. Jim Hartman, who teaches environmental science at Ashland High School, said he would also like to see other classes address global warming, even within the science department. Biology classes, for example, could study how changing climates might affect various plants and animals, he said.

"I think it's just so obvious with the rapid melting of the polar ice caps that we need to spend more time on it," he said.

High school students are not required to take an environmental science class, he said, so they may miss out on global warming lessons. About 90 students are enrolled in an environmental science class this year, Hartman said.

At Southern Oregon University, climate change has already spanned the disciplines.

Prakash Chenjeri taught a philosophy class last term that dealt with global warming, stem cell research and intelligent design.

"Since the course is on science and values, we looked at the sociological, political, economic and even some of the religious angles of this issue," he said. "The goal is to present as objectively as possible the issues and place the issues in the center to look at them from five or six different angles."

Greg Jones, an environmental studies professor, guest lectured in that philosophy class and said he would like to see even more classes tackle study climate change, from anthropology to communication.

In his own classes, he assigns his students to analyze the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which won the Nobel Prize last year. He teaches students how to find quality information, and to be skeptical of information on the Internet, where he said most of the climate change naysayers post their arguments, but lets students form their own opinions.

"It's not my job to prove anything as a teacher," he said. "It's my job to make people more aware so they can make better decisions on their own."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or . To post a comment on this story, go to .