In the Classroom: Climate Change Chemistry

One of my most memorable interactions when I first started at NCSE was a conversation I had at an educator conference with a chemistry teacher. I was talking to him about teaching climate change, and he turned to me and said, with a straight face, “I don’t teach climate change, because it has nothing to do with chemistry.” I was so dumbfounded by his comment that I could hardly respond. I’m certain that there are oodles of atmospheric, oceanic, and terrestrial chemists who would wholeheartedly disagree with him—and what is CO2 made out of anyway, parsley?

Since then, I’ve been thrilled every time I run into a chemistry teacher who teaches about climate change. These educators understand that if you want to teach your students about the applicability of chemistry to their everyday lives, then climate change affords a great opportunity to do it. And many teachers see the clear connections between chemistry and climate. But I don’t fault the ones who don’t, because the connections (though incredibly clear) are a little more complex than some teachers are comfortable in addressing in class. They may also have concerns about bringing a “political” concept into the science classroom. And they may feel that there aren’t enough resources out there to support their teaching about chemistry and climate change. Sadly, they may be right about this last point.

This is why I was so enthusiastic about this week’s In the Classroom materials. They very clearly address the chemistry of climate change, specifically ocean acidification—but they make the connections to students’ lives abundantly clear. (Also they are cartoons—such fun!)

The first is a video from the good folks at the California Academy of Sciences. This video is really cool, because it gets into chemistry concepts like pH that many other videos gloss over. It’s a bit long, going in depth about the chemistry concepts, reviewing the chemical reactions and then connecting them to the bigger picture, such as the effect of ocean acidification on biodiversity. It’s worth the time it takes to address these concepts so well.

If you are looking for something a little more concise, but still engaging, that makes the connections among the chemistry, the biosphere, and humans, then check out the videos by the Alliance for Climate Education. It wasn’t for nothing that ACE received a Friend of the Planet award from NCSE for 2015—and these videos show part of the reason why.

Two of ACE’s videos address ocean acidification. They delve into the chemistry (but not as deeply as the Cal Academy videos) and make the connections to humans very quickly. Why do we care about ocean acidification? These videos help students understand why.

So chemistry teachers out there, what do you think? Do these videos give you a way to address climate change with your students? Do you think that the way they address the topic has enough of the science background that students need? What other teaching materials or activities do you think you’d add to the videos to make the discussion more robust?