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Do teachers’ climate change beliefs influence students?

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Credit: Credits: Scientific Visualization Studio/Goddard Space Flight Center

A North Carolina State University study of middle school science classes explored whether teachers' beliefs about climate change influenced students' perceptions.

"The answer is yes and no," says Kathryn Stevenson, an assistant professor in NC State's College of Natural Resources and lead author of a paper describing the study, published in PLOS ONE. "While students generally mirror a teacher's belief that global warming is happening, when it comes to the cause of climate change, students reason for themselves and reach different conclusions than their teachers do."

Stevenson said the study included 369 middle school students in coastal North Carolina, a region at high risk of sea-level rise and related effects of climate change.

While more than 95 percent of the world's climate scientists attribute global warming to human causes, only about half of U.S. adults agree. Teachers share those views, suggesting such polarization over climate change causes may be spread through classroom teaching.

"We know that adults' views of climate change are strongly related to their worldviews and ideology," Stevenson says. "Early adolescence is a time when students' views are still forming, and we wanted to find out which factors affect their beliefs about climate change."

Researchers found that having a teacher who believed climate change was occurring – as 92 percent of students in the study did – was a "strong, positive predictor" of students' belief in global warming.

However, students diverged from their teachers when it came to understanding the causes of climate change. Students who believed climate change was happening concluded it was caused by humans regardless of their teachers' beliefs.

"Students could interpret scientific information for themselves and deduce that climate change is human-caused or anthropogenic," says Stevenson, a former science teacher for grades 4-12. "The strongest factor in students' belief in human-caused climate change was their own knowledge of climate science."

Most middle school science teachers reported spending a short time focusing on climate change – one to two hours on average.

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The study was funded by North Carolina Sea Grant. Co-authors are Nils Peterson, an NC State professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology; and Amy Bradshaw, an NC State zoology student who earned a bachelor's degree in 2016.

Note to editors: An abstract of the research follows.

How Climate Change Beliefs among U.S. Teachers Do and Do Not Translate to Students

Published: Sept. 7, 2016 in PLOS ONE

Authors: Kathryn T. Stevenson, M. Nils Peterson and Amy Bradshaw, North Carolina State University

Abstract: Research suggests climate change beliefs among science teachers mirror those of the general public, raising questions of whether teachers may be perpetuating polarization of public opinion through their classrooms. We began answering these questions with a survey of middle school science teachers (n=24) and their students (n=369) in North Carolina, USA. Similar to previous studies, we found that though nearly all (92.1%) of students had teachers who believe that global warming is happening, few (12%) are in classrooms with teachers who recognize that global warming is anthropogenic. We found that teacher beliefs that global warming is happening and student climate change knowledge were the strongest predictors of student belief that global warming is happening and human caused. Conversely, teacher beliefs about human causes of global warming had no relationship with student beliefs, suggesting that science teachers' low recognition of the causes of global warming is not necessarily problematic in terms of student outcomes. These findings may be explained by previous research suggesting adolescents interpret scientific information relatively independently of ideological constraints. Though teacher polarization may be problematic in its own right, it appears that as long as climate change information is presented in classrooms, students deduce anthropogenic causes.

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