Ever wondered what our curriculum teaches kids about climate change? The answer is ‘not much’



Australian schools are pretty much left to their own devices when it comes to teaching students about the climate emergency.
Shutterstock/Suphakit Wararatphong

Hilary Whitehouse, James Cook University

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.


Climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing our society today, so you would think it would be an important topic for study in the school curriculum.

But in Australia that’s not the case. Schools and teachers are largely left to fend for themselves and use other available resources if they want to raise the issue with students.

Put climate change in education

Calls for climate change to be part of the curricula for primary and secondary education were detailed in 2010 when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) established the Climate Change Education for Sustainable Development (CCESD) program. It was part of the organisation’s effort to increase “climate literacy” among young people.




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The importance of climate change education was later covered under Article 12 of the Paris Agreement, which Australia and other countries signed in 2016.

Under the Paris Agreement Work Program, countries have agreed to develop extensive education programs and to promote public participation in decision-making.

Some countries – such as Vietnam, the Philippines, South Africa and China – already have national education programs addressing climate change.

Australia is not one of them.

People want action

Australia has not designed, implemented nor funded a coherent educational approach to our climate emergency. That’s despite the fact poll after poll of Australians show the majority want more action on climate change.

The Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience identifies education in schools as a priority in understanding risks of climate change. Yet education departments at state and federal level show few public signs of creating a coordinated curriculum approach.

Explicit links to the topic of climate change in national and state curricula are only found within the senior secondary (Years 11 and 12) and secondary (Years 7 to 10) Humanities, Geography and Science learning areas. Some are compulsory and some optional depending on the school and year group.

We can find no explicit mention of climate change in the primary (Years 1-6) curriculum, though students learn related topics on endangered species, renewable energy and natural disasters.

We predict that continuing curriculum redevelopment will focus more effectively on the climate crisis as its effects become more pronounced. But the current piecemeal approach doesn’t address the problem at scale.

For now, climate change is hinted at but generally unnamed in school curricula. Climate change education is certainly not mandated, nor is it directly nor sufficiently funded.

In and out of the curriculum

In the past 20 years climate change education has been in and out of the formal curriculum depending on the whims of government.

In 1999, the then Liberal environment minister, Robert Hill, released the Today Shapes Tomorrow discussion paper. This led to the Environmental Education for a Sustainable Future: National Action Plan, which launched the Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative (AuSSI).

AuSSI placed the learner at the centre of the inquiry process for transformational change, which is the ideal approach to climate change education.

A second national plan, Living Sustainably: the Australian Government’s National Action Plan for Education for Sustainability, was released in 2009. This revealed how Australia was educationally preparing itself for a systemic shift. Except that it wasn’t.

Early in 2010, the Australian government abruptly withdrew funding and support for AuSSI without explanation. The first and second National Action Plans were abandoned.

Schools left to go it alone

No overarching, national coordination has been in place since. Australian schools have been pretty much left to their own devices when it comes to teaching the climate emergency.

Children and young people are presently reliant on the initiative of teachers, parents, principals and professional associations to introduce and maintain sustainability programs to learn about their futures in school time.

Their alternatives are to rely on peers and on information from community and non-government organisation (NGO) networks.

For example, many excellent resources have been developed for schools, such as CSIRO’s Sustainable Futures, Cool Australia, Future Earth, the Climate Reality Project, Climate Watch and Scootle. There are also the successful Reef Guardian and Sea Country programs.

Catholic schools can draw inspiration from the Papal Encyclical, Laudato Si’ (“on care for our common home”), and most schools promote energy, waste and water conservation.

In the last decade, state and federal governments have shied away from systematic, climate change education. That’s despite the real risks to all Australian children and young people who are facing the prospect of diminished lives without climate stability.




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There is much to be done within the education sector to maturely and responsibly address the risks of climate change. Denial, prevarication and obfuscation do not alter thermodynamic reality.

Education is central to climate change mitigation, adaptation and resilience. As effects become more frightening, it is reasonable to ask: what is being done about recognising and systematically supporting climate change education in state and national school curricula?

Unfortunately, the short answer is not much. This may be one reason school students are taking to the streets on September 20 this year.


This article was co-authored by Angela Colliver, an education for sustainability specialist who designs educational programs and curriculum resources for Australian schools.The Conversation

Hilary Whitehouse, Associate Professor, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Teaching reptiles to avoid cane toads earns top honour in PM’s science prizes


Michael Hopkin, The Conversation

A conservation biologist who is bidding to help Australia’s native animals learn to give cane toads a wide berth has been awarded the 2016 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.

University of Sydney professor Rick Shine was given the award for his work in using evolutionary principles to boost the effectiveness of real-world conservation.

One example is his innovative use of “teacher toads” – small cane toads deployed in areas where native animals are threatened by the poisonous invaders. These small toads aren’t big enough to kill but are unpleasant enough to encourage animals such as quolls and lizards to steer clear of eating bigger cane toads in future.

Invading cane toads are spreading westwards across tropical Australia and have now reached the northern parts of Western Australia, growing bigger and faster as they go. By deliberately releasing smaller cane toads ahead of the invasion front, the project aims to give native animals a better chance of avoiding being caught on the hop.

Professor Shine’s research has also explored ways to stop cane toads reproducing, by lacing traps with pheromones from other species that attract cane toad tadpoles.

Originally a reptile biologist, Professor Shine began studying cane toads after one arrived at a site on the Adelaide River near Darwin, making him realise the significance of the threat the toads posed.

“The creatures like snakes and lizards that dominate our ecosystems, they’re the ones we have to focus on, they’re the ones we need to understand if we want to keep Australia’s ecosystems functioning,” he said.

Rick Shine on his love of reptiles.

UNSW Australia conservation ecologist Mike Letnic said that Professor Shine has been a role model for many scientists, particularly biologists tackling big questions about evolution and conservation.

“For me the biggest contribution he has made is in studying the rapid evolution of some species such as snakes, and obviously the work on cane toads feeds into that. The big challenge is whether you can harness that evolution for biological control,” he said.

“With cane toads it is not just the selection process but also the spatial sorting – faster, fitter toads are skewing selection by being at the invasion front.”

Cash and plastic

Other award recipients include Michael Aitken of the Capital Markets Cooperative Research Centre, who won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation for his use of financial data to identify ways to improve Australia’s health markets.

Having initially developed ways to detect fraud in financial markets, Professor Aitken then turned his attention to spotting inefficiencies in health spending.

He and his colleagues have identified examples of “low-value treatments”, which are over-prescribed relative to the benefits they deliver – such as prostate screening and surgeries for chronic arthritis.

“We are looking at maybe A$20 billion per year that could be directed to improve health care in areas of genuine want,” he said. “These might be treatments that are of no great benefit. But surgeons are paid to do surgery – and if they don’t do surgery they don’t get paid, so they do it.”

Professor Aitken said you can learn a lot by studying the “low-hanging fruit” of health financial data to spot treatments that are being over-prescribed. But he then asks clinical experts to evaluate the evidence base for the treatments themselves.

Michael Aitken explains his data-driven approach.

Another scientist being honoured for innovation is Colin Hall of the University of South Australia, who has created a high-tech, all-plastic replacement for standard car wing mirrors.

His design is lighter and more sustainable than the conventional metal-and-glass design, but it had to pass a succession of stringent tests designed to mimic harsh motoring conditions before being adopted by the car industry.

“The hardest was the salt test – it had to be sprayed with very salty hot water for ten days,” Hall said.

Other tests included a thermal shock test in which the mirrors had to cycle rapidly between -40℃ and 80℃, 200 times in a row, to ensure they could handle temperature changes.

Colin Hall’s high-tech plastics have passed the test.
Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/WildBear

Hall’s earlier research focused on designing high-tech plastics for spectacles. But while a pair of glasses might be replaced within a year, cars are designed to last at least a decade, which means the industry is very strict about which designs it approves.

Hall hopes that, in time, all of the metal components on cars can be replaced with plastic alternatives, thereby doing away with the highly polluting electroplating processes currently used in car production.

Peptides, proteins and ecosystems

Other prizewinners include Richard Payne of the University of Sydney, whose work on re-engineering protein molecules found in nature promises to give us new ways to treat stroke, malaria, tuberculosis and even cancer, and has earned him the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year.

University of Queensland conservation scientist Kerrie Wilson has won the Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, for her work on evaluating “ecosystem services” – the benefits provided by natural resources such as clean air, water and food.

Perth teacher and former geoscientist Suzy Urbaniak has won the prize for excellence in secondary school science teaching, while the award for primary school science education went to Sydney-based Gary Tilley.

The winners, who will share a prize pool of A$750,000, will receive their prizes from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Science Minister Greg Hunt at a dinner in Parliament House this evening.

The Conversation

Michael Hopkin, Environment + Energy Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.