When my daughter was in 10th grade at Masterman 16 years ago, I realized that she was going to go all the way through high school without ever hearing the words “climate” and “change” in sequence.
When my daughter was in 10th grade at Masterman 16 years ago, gobbling up all the science and physics that the Philadelphia public school system could throw at her, I realized that she was going to go all the way through high school without ever hearing the words “climate” and “change” in sequence. So when I went to the next parent-teacher meeting, I couldn’t help myself, and confronted her wonderful biology teacher, and said, “I know it’s not your fault, but what are you all doing here by not teaching our children about climate change? You’re tying them to the railroad tracks, and the train is coming.” She stared at me like a deer in headlights and shook her head in agreement.
That was more than a decade ago, yet we’re still not doing an effective job of preparing our young people for the future.
Good curriculum is not readily available, and teachers need training. These are easy problems to fix, but they have to become a top priority. The Philadelphia Solar Energy Association, a local nonprofit, is working on it. Fortunately, we’re not the only ones working to improve education at all levels on climate change and how to effectively slow it down and eventually solve it. Philadelphia has just adopted a set of standards called Education for Sustainability that are excellent. Now, curriculum and teacher training must follow so that students not only will really begin to learn about and understand the problems they face but also have the tools to solve them. A sense of agency – giving students the knowledge, skills and ability to address climate change right now, right here – is the greatest gift we can give our children.
With small environmental education grants from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, (DEP), the Philadelphia Solar Energy Association has written fifth-grade science curriculum that explores solar energy and helps students understand its role in helping us lower greenhouse gas emissions. We are now working on sixth-grade curriculum. Both curricula also introduce green energy career options to students. The Pennsylvania State Education Association also sponsors two educational events that are open to all students. The Junior Solar Sprint is a program in which middle school students learn to design, build and race model solar cars. We partner each year with Drexel University to host the race on their campus usually in late May. More information on the Sprint is available on our website at phillysolar.org.
This year for the first time, we are sponsoring a student contest to “Imagine a Clean Energy Future.” In order to build a clean energy future, we need to be able to see it. Students in grades 5–12 throughout the Philadelphia region are invited to submit their vision in any of the following categories: Visual Arts, Language Arts or Video. Contest details can be found at phillysolar.org/student-contest.
Solar and wind energy are now the fastest-growing forms of energy in the U.S. Clean energy technologies are constantly improving. It is understandably challenging for curricula to keep pace with the changes, yet it is imperative.
Fortunately, the state’s new science standards and the Philadelphia School District’s standards focus on experiential learning and encourage students to solve real-world problems. The City of Philadelphia now has more than 1,000 solar installations, strong solar contracting companies, a solar training center and a world-class engineering school. The Philadelphia Energy Authority (PEA) has developed an excellent solar installer program for high school sophomores called “Bright Solar Futures.” PSEA’s curriculum introduces students to these and other resources to help students connect to the people all around them working hard to address climate change and bring about the transition to a clean affordable energy future for all of us.
For those who worry about the “right” way to broach the large, daunting topic of climate change, start with what is happening here in our city. Bring students into the conversations and issues in order to see both the problems and innovative opportunities that lie ahead.
Liz Robinson is executive director, Philadelphia Solar Energy Association, firstname.lastname@example.org