On a sultry summer day about a dozen years ago, Rachel Yoho was busy straining maggots out of pig manure. The odoriferous task was a prelude to using bacteria in the excrement to create biofuel. Even in high school, Yoho wanted to study how bacteria could be used to generate energy. She found hands-on science fair experiments like this one among the best ways to learn, rather than from reading school textbooks. In fact, she doesn’t recall her textbooks mentioning renewable energy or climate change at all.
“I can’t really remember any educational discussion about climate change before I got to college and can’t recall what may have been in the K-12 textbooks either,” said Yoho, a visiting assistant professor of biology at Miami University of Ohio. “Nothing stands out to me at the moment. I think there may have been some information about energy technologies, climate change or related environmental issues in the textbooks when I was in college. It’s not something that significantly stands out to me.”
Instead, she learned from reading books she found herself, among them, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and former Vice President Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, a book released in conjunction with the movie of the same name. In fact, she still keeps an original copy of Silent Spring on her office bookshelf. “Overall, I read a lot of books,” Yoho said.
She was concerned about the apparent absence of information about climate change in college textbooks. So, while pursuing her doctorate at Arizona State University, she decided to look into the matter.
Yoho and her collaborator, Bruce Rittmann, director of ASU’s Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology, examined introductory textbooks in physics, biology and chemistry. They focused on introductory books in specific fields because “in a cutting-edge research lab, we are used to looking at things across disciplines,” she said. Moreover, introductory textbooks “represent the intersection of teaching to non-scientists and training for future scientists,” she added.
Their results were disturbing. They found that less than four percent of the pages in the textbooks they examined discussed climate change, renewable energy or related environmental issues — a sign that universities are doing too little to educate students about the defining issue of their generation. The findings appear in the journal Environmental Communication.
“I think climate change is an absolutely essential scientific topic,” Yoho said. “It’s a socio-scientific issue and one of the biggest problems facing society today. Climate change is something that we find in the news, on social media and in conversation with others on a regular basis. Discussion of climate change impacts our lives and our students’ lives in many ways.”
Yet climate change still remains among the most polarizing issues in society today. Despite virtual unanimity among scientists that climate change is real, and that it is caused by human activities, people who cast doubt on climate science continue to dominate the debate.
This is one reason why scientists believe it’s essential to include climate change and its related issues in textbooks. “As we’re learning introductory level content in the classroom, I think there are great ways to tie in concepts that cross the disciplines and strengthen the links between the classroom and daily life,” Yoho said. However, she acknowledged “it’s a difficult balance in an introductory course. “There’s so much information to cover in a short time.”
The scientists examined more than 15,000 combined pages from current editions of 16 leading physics, biology and chemistry undergraduate textbooks. They found that climate change, fossil fuels, renewable energy and nuclear energy often did not take up much space in these books, despite having “implications on introductory-level science education, the public perception of science and an informed citizenship,” Rittman said. When climate change appeared, it typically showed up in the final third of the biology and chemistry books, where authors explained how science can be applied in the real world.
“While upper-level classes are great opportunities to focus deeply on topics at a very advanced level, personally I think it is also important to discuss these topics at the introductory level,” Yoho said. “As students are entering into these scientific communities and beginning to understand the foundational concepts, use the jargon and apply their knowledge, it’s important to think about how some of these bigger picture ideas fit.”
Despite the difficulties in balancing content at the introductory level — since there is a vast amount that must be covered during a semester — it’s important to remember that not every student is a science major or has the opportunity to take upper-level courses, Yoho said.
“If we consider the goal of education to be to prepare students as whole people — for their careers and their lives — these topics that appear across the disciplines and show up in their daily lives are certainly important,” she said. “Our communities feel the impacts of our energy decisions and climate. With these types of socio-scientific issues, we have a great opportunity to connect key course content with topics students encounter in daily life.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.