At a brainstorming session in Vancouver last month, a group of high school students unabashedly hurled their clean energy ideas towards Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna.
“It’s so critical that we act now because we’ve been going in the wrong direction,” she told an audience of dozens in Grades 9 through 12. “I have to come up with a climate plan that has to be presented to the prime minister. This is why I need your help.”
The students at Magee Secondary School held nothing back: one suggested carbon pricing for all precious resources, while another suggested taxing the meat, water, and dairy industries. Some recommended subsidies for clean tech companies, and others rooted for investments in solar aviation.
At the end of the session, McKenna was “blown away” by their innovation and posted this selfie (below) to Instagram. It was clear that Magee Secondary students spent class time learning about climate change and jotting down their green solutions.
But what about students everywhere else in Canada?
Not enough time for climate change
“Unfortunately, now there’s not very much time allocated for it,” said Breanne Bodnar, a science and biology teacher at St. Joseph High School in Grande Prairie, Alta. “It would be nice to have equal amounts of time [for climate change] as we have for the other content.”
While education is regulated provincially in Canada, which means the experiences of students will vary, the crunch for time and resources is an issue that resonates with teachers across the board. Bodnar, who has been teaching science for eight years, said she spends at least a month or more teaching Grade 9 and 10 students chemistry, physics, and biology, but as little as six days on climate change — a topic considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, threat to the planet today.
Rebekah Barendregt, a colleague in the science department, backed her up. She said time is short and most teachers choose to focus on the units their students find more difficult to understand.
“There’s ways around it, but because the curriculum is so packed full of kind of more difficult material it’s challenging for teachers to fit in everything they want to talk about,” she told National Observer.
Barendregt managed to cover climate change more in depth by partnering up with a social studies teacher to have their students write a joint paper that covered it from both perspectives.
Teachers in Canada are bound by the provincial curriculum, but the amount of time they allocate to climate change and the manner in which they teach it is subjective, said the two Alberta educators.
Teacher discretion on climate change
According to an email statement from the Ontario Ministry of Education, climate change and related issues "may be explored extensively" in geography, history, and civics and careers courses for students in Grades 9 and 10. A similar statement from the Alberta Ministry of Education, said that a discussion on climate change "will likely arise" between Grades 1 and 12 in social studies programs.
In February 2016, researchers from Penn State University and the National Centre for Science Education published a rather shocking report that found nearly two-thirds of American schoolchildren are taught climate change poorly. Only 38 per cent of them were taught that climate change is largely the result of burning fossil fuels and roughly 30 per cent of teachers spent less than an hour on the subject during the last academic year.
The researchers surveyed 1,500 teachers across the country and found that some seven per cent of them attributed recent global warming to natural causes, in clear contravention of scientific fact. American education — like Canada — is not regulated federally, but by each individual state.
A similar study has yet to make waves north of the border, but from an outsider's perspective climate curriculum appears quite explicit in Canada: of the 10 provinces and three territories, all of which had some version of their curriculum available online, every single one of them referenced climate change somewhere in a mandatory class, and nearly all of them sought to examine the human causes of climate change, including the burning of fossil fuels.
For students in Grades 11 and 12, most ministries also offer specialized courses in environmental science, sustainability, or resource development that were not available as little as 10 years ago. Manitoba in particular has launched a province-wide initiative to help teachers incorporate sustainability lessons into classes across all disciplines and ages, and Alberta has a plethora of courses available in environmental safety, forestry, water management, and environmental politics.
“Environmental content has been added to the curriculum gradually over the years,” explained the Alberta Ministry of Education. “While the term ‘climate change’ may not be explicitly used in subjects outside of the sciences, the topic is explored in many grades and across subjects such as Language Arts, Social Studies, Career and Technology Foundations, and Career and Technology Studies.”
The B.C. Ministry of Education also confirmed that updates to its own curriculum allow senior high school students to "personalize" their climate change education experience with optional courses that focus on sustainability, stewardship, restoration principles, and climate change. Education ministries in P.E.I. and Nunavut did not return requests for comment in time for publication of this story.
Examples of climate change curriculum:
Kids already savvy on climate change
While teacher discretion does plays a role in climate change education, said Bodner, her job has been made easier by the students themselves. Thanks to media, parents, previous instructors and more, most children enter the high school system with a sound understanding of the climate change concept:
“Going through the curriculum, they already know quite a bit of it," she told National Observer, "so whether that be through previous teachers, what they see on TV or what they decided to research on — they come in with quite a well-rounded knowledge.”
It's an outcome the federal government — though not directly responsible for education — is doing its best to support through visits like the one McKenna made at Magee Secondary School in Vancouver. Environment and Climate Change Canada also recently launched an environment Youth Zone online, a public ideas forum for tackling climate change, and a live Facebook chat on the topic.
It's a far cry from the previous administration, which in 2012 accused youth leaders of being poorly informed on international climate change negotiations after they openly criticized it for adopting positions they felt protected the interests oil and gas companies whose pollution contributed to global warming.
On how school curriculum on climate change could improve in Canada, Bodner and Barendregt had one suggestion:
"I would like to see the curriculum move towards skill-based competencies rather than so much knowledge-based material," Barendregt explpained. “I would rather have it more open to develop skills like research and reasoning so they can grapple with the challenges behind it."