The Hawaii Department of Education’s climate change curriculum is far-reaching — covering air pollution, insect disturbance and deforestation. But the pandemic has ushered in virtual school: stretching teachers thin and limiting options for student engagement.

“We’re going to have to push even more to really think about what we value the most during the face to face time that we have with students, because it will be very limited,” said Buffy Cushman-Patz, executive director of The School for Examining Essential Questions of Sustainability, a charter school in Honolulu.

Parents are worried that teachers might not be able to fully cover complicated subjects like climate change this school year, and a growing number of parents are considering homeschooling.

In the latest episode of “Are We Doomed?” Civil Beat reporters break down the best ways for parents to teach kids about climate change.

Agriculture instructor Randy Turner teaches students planting techniques at Na Wai Ola Public Charter School, located in Mountain View, HI, 10/27/13 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat
School gardens might be off the table this year, but you can still learn about the life cycle by helping your child grow a small plant on a window sill or patio. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Teach About The Outdoors, Outdoors

The most effective way to teach kids about the complicated, political and often scary reality of climate change has interested scientists for years. Martha Monroe, a professor at the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida, led a research project analyzing dozens of studies on climate change education to determine the most effective learning outcomes.

“The first lesson is something that anyone who works with kids knows well: the material has to be relevant to their lives,” she said.

Tips from education expert Martha Monroe:

Students in Hawaii have an advantage in this sense, since the islands are already seeing and feeling impacts from climate change. And during the pandemic, Hawaii’s many beaches and outdoor spaces offer safe opportunities for in-the-field learning.

Pauline Sato, executive director of the Malama Learning Center, recommends teaching kids about native plants during family hikes, or simply saying out loud how great it is that beautiful trees absorb carbon dioxide, which the family car releases into the air.

“The idea of having to teach about climate change can be too much pressure for parents,” Sato said. “But you can just incorporate small details into everyday conversations.’”

Learn Together

Cushman-Patz said that these conversations can naturally become more complex as children become curious and begin asking more questions, but it’s alright to admit you don’t know.

“Instead of focusing on complicated topics as they are, frame them as questions,” she said. “That way, you admit to your student that ‘I’m learning right alongside you.’”

Parents and students can sit down together to find answers online, which will also teach children how to determine whether a source is credible or not.

“Look at things with an eagle eye in terms of, who’s producing this? Is it based with a university? Is there a bias? What’s going on here?” Monroe said. “Websites from the federal government are usually balanced and appropriate and scientific, but you should openly talk about the different sources of information with your student.”

You’re Not Alone

For parents up to the challenge of replicating school lesson plans, The Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network is a collection of peer-reviewed lesson plans, science experiments and videos from NASA, NOAA and the U.S. Department of Energy.

All lessons are rigorously reviewed by scientists, so it’s a source you can trust. Although instructions are written with professional educators in mind, many of the experiments have multiple video tutorials.

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C.L.E.A.N Ocean acidification in a cup
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NASA’s Earth Minute Sea level rise
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National Geographic Kids Climate change in the Arctic

Lesson plans with immediate relevance to students in Hawaii include using purple cabbage, baking soda and vinegar to show how carbon dioxide in the air affects water, demonstrating ocean acidification. The site recommends a follow-up activity where students submerge shells in the acidic water to understand the effects on sea creatures.

The Nature Conservancy also published a virtual summer camp with four weeks of lessons, experiments, activities and virtual “field trips” for grades 3 through 8. Hawaii-specific learning plans are in the works but in the meantime you can build a simple water filter that replicates how nature cleans our water or take a virtual trip to the coral reefs of Palau.

Outdoorsy families can join Nature’s Notebook to document changes in their neighborhood, nearby forest or favorite beach. The data is used by researchers and scientists to understand how climate change is impacting different ecosystems. One project included 250 Hawaii residents tracking changes in ulu or breadfruit trees.

And for recent high school graduates and college students, the state’s annual conservation conference is offering scholarships.

Turn Your Dining Table Into A Debate Stage

For older students forming their own political identities, engaging them on what should be done about climate change is particularly important.

“Just remember that science is set, there’s little to no disagreement about the actual science, but talking about solutions to climate change … that’s where there’s a lot of room for debate,” Monroe said.

She recommends The National Issues Forum, an organization that encourages public discourse. The group has a number of PDF guides for debating climate solutions, like sharply reducing carbon emissions, preparing and protecting communities or accelerating innovation.

Parents can debate with their kids about the best solution, then have everyone switch sides to consider other points of view.

Focusing on solutions is also a key way to keep your kids from succumbing to climate anxiety.

“There is the danger of overwhelming the student and kind of depressing them, because it’s not necessarily very positive news,” Sato said. “But at the same time, we should realize they know it’s serious. They’re not just hearing it from us, they’re reading it, they’re hearing from other people … so let’s give them the best foundation we can.”

“Are We Doomed? And Other Burning Environmental Questions” is funded in part by grants from the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

Want to hear more? Check out Civil Beat's other podcasts.

Are We Doomed?! And Other Burning Environmental Questions
Are We Doomed?! And Other Burning Environmental Questions

What the heck is reef-safe sunscreen? Where does all the trash go? Why is it so hot? Join Civil Beat as we tackle your questions about Hawaii's environment. Smart. Irreverent. Never boring. This is not your grandma's science podcast.

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