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Teachers ask the big questions about our changing planet

Miles Traer
August 19, 2015
High school teacher Monica Sircar watches a model convection system in a bowl of water
High school teacher Monica Sircar (Everest Public High School, Redwood City) finds her inner student as she marvels at a simple demonstration of fluid dynamics and convection cells as part of the Understanding Global Change Workshop.

When is the next big earthquake?

How do computers predict the weather?

How does global environmental change affect me?

Do I have to make different choices?

According to middle and high school teachers from across Northern California, these are the most common types of questions their students ask about the changing planet. The teachers were visiting Stanford as part of a week-long workshop July 20-24, 2015, to better equip themselves to interact with their students on the subject of Earth sciences and answer these looming questions.

Twenty-five teachers attended the Understanding Global Change workshop, co-sponsored by the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP). They engaged with experts on the life systems of the planet, including the hydrosphere, climate, biosphere, nutrient cycles, and geosphere.

“The workshop’s goal is to deepen teachers’ understanding of how to most effectively teach the Earth sciences,” said Jenny Saltzman, director of outreach education at Stanford Earth and co-organizer of the workshop.

“It’s the perfect series of topics for our time,” added Lisa White, assistant director for education and public programs for the UCMP and workshop co-organizer with Saltzman.  “These truly engaging topics link science to society across generations. There aren’t many fields that can do that.”

Following lectures, teachers interacted with the expert speakers, such as U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Claudia Faunt and the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology founding director Chris Field, who is the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies at Stanford Earth. They discussed key concepts for classroom teaching, including climate change, soil nutrients, drought, water consumption, evolution, and mass extinction.

Teachers use string to model sunlight hitting Earth's surface

Teachers Monica Sircar (left; Everest Public High School, Redwood City) and Crystina Ayala (ASCEND K-8 School, Oakland) use string to represent rays of sunlight hitting Earth's surface at different angles at different latitudes.

“Most of the time, we’re introducing the students to these ideas. So we need to get it right,” said teacher Jackie Durant from Piedmont Middle School in San Jose. All of the teachers mirrored this desire to know more and ensure that when their students ask tough questions, their responses are scientifically accurate. High school teacher Lenore Kenny from the June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco, along with sixth grade teachers Liat Baranoff and Tammy Parke from Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, explained that it wasn’t just the younger generation that looked to them for answers, but parents, too. Said Kenny, “Everyone wants to know more about this. Our changing planet is a big deal.”

Across the country, many states, including California, have adopted the new Next Generation Science Standards, an initiative organized by teachers and education experts to ensure a high-quality science education for today’s students and tomorrow’s workforce. Programs such as Saltzman and White’s workshop help further this goal by connecting teachers and researchers directly. Understanding the planet has never been more important as Earth’s life support systems continue to evolve and each generation of educators must keep up and pass the best possible information along to their students.

Jon Payne, associate professor of geological sciences at Stanford Earth, spoke at the workshop about mass extinctions and the long-term perspective scientists gain by analyzing the rock record and looking at the evolution of life over hundreds of millions of years.

“One of the most effective ways to share the knowledge gained in our research is to work directly with science teachers,” said Payne. “As a former science teacher myself, I feel a particular excitement in being able to engage with high school teachers who pass that information along to the next generation.”