Scientists have revealed a worrying trend: it’s not just regular people who have misconceptions about climate change, the ones preparing future generations — science teachers — also exhibit gaps in their understanding.

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The elephant in the school

There’s an elephant in the room, and that elephant is climate change. We don’t know everything about it, there are many details still being discussed and studies coming out every week to fill out our understanding of the phenomenon, like puzzle pieces completing a picture. Basically, we’re still analyzing the color of the elephant’s eyes and debating its tail length, but the animal is clearly visible. Still, studies and surveys have shown that people often hold numerous misconceptions about climate change, ranging from a flat-out disbelief of the phenomenon to other, more subtle shortcomings.

Unfortunately, the same seems to stand true for science teachers. Benjamin Herman, assistant professor in the Department of Learning, Teaching and Curriculum in the University of Missouri College of Education, surveyed 220 secondary science teachers in Florida and Puerto Rico to assess their understanding of climate change. They asked general questions, such as what contributes to climate change, and what kind of experiments are required to validate climate change.

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The teachers widely understood that fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions are the main culprits of climate change. But when it came to understanding the importance of experiments, things weren’t so good. Almost 50 percent of Florida teachers and nearly 70 percent of Puerto Rico teachers incorrectly believed that controlled experiments are necessary to confirm climate change. Also, 70 percent of Florida teachers and almost all Puerto Rico teachers believed that the depletion of the ozone layer is a significant cause of climate change, which is incorrect.

According to Herman, the rates of misconceptions were similar to those of regular Americans, which is quite worrying. But he also says that the teachers themselves are not really to blame. They are overworked and underpaid, and they just don’t have the personal development opportunities required to familiarize themselves with newer science. It’s a regrettable situation, with consequences hard to foresee.

“Teachers want and need support to keep them abreast of scientific discoveries and developments and how scientists come to their well-established claims regarding climate change,” Herman said. “Climate change science involves many different types of science methods stemming from disciplines, including physics, biology, atmospheric science and earth science. Science teachers also need professional development directed at assisting them in their efforts to accurately and effectively engage students on this important issue. Because of existing misconceptions and misinformation regarding climate change, science teachers have a crucial professional and ethical responsibility to accurately convey to their students how climate change is studied and why scientists believe the climate is changing.”

This isn’t the first study to highlight to issue. In 2016, Penn State University researchers showed only 30% of middle school teachers correctly selected “81 to 100%,” when asked “what proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities?” High school teachers scored a shy better, 45% correctly answering the question.  Most teachers seem to think that climate change is a subject for debate among scientists, mirroring the polarization they must have seen in the media.

The study, “Florida and Puerto Rico Secondary Science Teachers’ Knowledge and Teaching of Climate Change Science,” was published in the International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education.