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Making Climate Change Personal: 8th Graders Explore What One Person Can Do

Making Climate Change Personal: 8th Graders Explore What One Person Can Do
Sophie Shulman

In the fall of 2020, the Bay Area skies turned dark orange. It was a particularly destructive fire season, and the ominous orange skies served as a stark reminder of the fragility of our natural environment. Eighth grade science teacher Suzanne Alpert found herself fielding many questions from her students about wildfires and climate change. So she decided to build a standalone unit to address their questions and help them better understand what was happening and why—and what could be done to protect our environment. Four years later, the unit is still an impactful learning experience for 8th graders.

“Students are really at the center of this unit,” says Suzanne. “Their own curiosities drive the direction of the topics they dive into, which also align with national science standards.”

In addition to an overview of climate change, students engage in seven mini lessons that cover topics such as wildfires, droughts, ocean, plastic, and food waste. Then, they have the opportunity to select their own topic of interest and create a project in any modality—research paper, website, slide deck, podcast, or movie—that reflects what they’ve learned. They are also required to research organizations that are addressing their specific topic of choice and one intention for themselves they can implement within a set period of time. “Students consider how their actions can be magnified and how they can make a difference,” says Suzanne. Many students were inspired by their own passions and experiences; for example, one student noticed plastic in the water while surfing, a second student interested in sustainability chose to investigate how sustainable agriculture practices aid food security, and an aviation enthusiast was curious about how to make more sustainable fuels for airplanes.

Suzanne sparks a conversation about how young people, like our 8th graders, have increasingly become advocates for addressing climate change. “Students always ask if one person can really make a difference,” says Suzanne. “We talk about our own responsibility as world citizens and how students can spread their knowledge so others can also take action.” This year, 8th graders created posters about climate change to hang outside the 4th and 5th grade classrooms. They also made postcards depicting what the world would look like if they could limit climate change in relation to the issue they studied. They visited 2nd grade classrooms to give their handmade postcards to students, read stories about climate change, and talk about what they liked about Earth. Additionally, several 8th graders presented their work at a divisional assembly in early March; specifically, they spoke about the positive impact of biking versus driving to school, how to dispose of lunch at Mark Day correctly, and skin care routines that can limit climate change.

“We know that sometimes, with this new knowledge, students can feel anxious about climate change,” says Suzanne. “We intentionally end the unit on a hopeful note, including sharing their knowledge with younger students, so they can see their intentions have a positive ripple effect on the wider community.