Climate Workshop Resonates with Mt. Blue High School Students
March 23, 2022
Mt. Blue High School Earth science teacher Dr. Patricia Millette asked students which science topics concerned them at the end of the 2020-21 school year. Climate change surfaced as a top response.
The discovery of student anxiety over climate change served as a catalyst for Dr. Millette to plan the school’s first climate workshop. Over the course of a few months, Dr. Millette recruited speakers from Maine’s legislature, farming, business, youth and climate science communities around themes designed to educate and empower students.
The thorough planning paid off. Speakers reported eyes glued to their presentations, lots of raised hands and thoughtful questions. Few if any phones were spotted. Students and parents continue to share positive feedback, including one student who expressed gratitude for being trusted with facts and not being preached to.
Dr. Millette describes how she planned the workshop agenda (PDF) - and shares lessons learned along the way.
- How long have you been a science teacher?
Aside from a short stint at the Maine Conservation School in Bryant Pond in 1983, I have been teaching Earth science essentially my whole career at Mt Blue since 1984, and a few years ago introduced an interdisciplinary class in oceanography here as well. I’ve taught introductory geology at both UMO and UMF, and have team-taught the science-teaching methods course at UMF.
- What prompted you to plan Mt. Blue’s first climate workshop?
I decided to organize it after reading responses to a survey I gave students at the end of last year (2020-21). In response to the question, “What topics in science concern you the most?”, COVID and climate change were the top responses. When I realized students were really anxious about climate, I wanted to give them an option to learn about it that would cut through the hype and media “junk” usually surrounding climate issues, but also give them some hope. I didn’t want to do something that would just make them feel empowered, I wanted them to actually be empowered to make a difference.
- How did you select the workshop topics?
Truthfully, I started out with only a general idea of what I wanted, and after talking with a lot of different people, the final format gradually took shape over time.
- First, I wanted students to understand how conclusions about climate were being derived. I contacted people who were doing research, or had access to data from research on the effects of climate in Maine already happening (farms, lakes, forests, and wildlife). It was an added benefit that some of the research being done was right within our district.
- I also wanted students to know what was being done in Maine right now in response to the effects of rapid climate change. The Maine Climate Council folks were the perfect fit for that since they are familiar with the current policies and climate plan. Additionally, Revision Energy was a great example of a successful business that was affecting climate in a positive way.
- I wanted students to know how they, as young people, could make an impact if they chose to. We had a session with young people from the Sunrise Movement and a “how to get a worry to become legislation” session.
- Approximately how long did planning the workshop take?
I started thinking about the whole concept over the 2021 summer. I sent feelers out to a few potential speakers, chatted with a lot of people in various places and events to get ideas and make connections. It took several months for my original idea to gel into a format that actually had themes aligning with our standing learning targets, and one that was logistically possible within our class schedule. I wanted it to fold into our existing curriculum and allow students to draw from the workshop experiences as we continued our unit on climate and into subsequent units. Once some of my early contacts and I hashed out a general format, recruiting the rest of the speakers actually happened within a few weeks.
- What role did the Maine Won’t Wait climate plan take in the workshop’s content?
Speakers from the Maine Climate Council planned two workshop sessions focused on what was already in the works in Maine for mitigating the effects of rapid climate change, and how Maine is planning to adapt to the effects - both were excellent sessions. They also left us with a number of additional resources based on the Maine Won’t Wait action plan.
- What do you think resonated most with students?
They felt like it was a more balanced view of climate issues than they have seen and heard in the media and in general social circles. I also got the feeling that students are now less paralyzed with the enormity of the issues, and don’t feel so much like this whole problem is being dumped on young people to fix (which is what they say they often feel). Clearly, people of all ages and occupations are working to solve this problem together, and students have seen several different ways in which they can be involved. Another piece of feedback I heard was that a student was grateful to have been trusted with the facts to make his own conclusions - commenting “no one preached at me.”
- Do you have any lessons-learned along the way to share with other educators planning climate workshops?
- Integrate the experience as part of your regular program if possible, not a stand-alone event.
- Keep student groups small if you want engagement and interaction with students and workshop facilitators. Also, keep presentations relatively short. Ours were scheduled for roughly a half hour. The workshops were not meant to cover all of the information, but to give students an idea of where they can go from here.
- Accept help from willing colleagues, administrators and staff.
- Give the speakers some idea of the students’ background. Many times, speakers from outside public education don’t have experience giving presentations of this kind, or are not used to interacting with teenagers. As a result, they might gear the tone of their presentation to a level which may not be appropriate for high school students.
- Be aware that potential speakers are probably really busy. Be as organized as you can before you ask for their time.
- Keep the political posturing/opinions/screaming out of the equation. Students in our school and other Maine public schools come from a huge variety of backgrounds, and we wanted to reach them all with rational information. We made it very clear to both students and speakers that the point of this event was not to arm-twist students into believing something. It was to present information about what was happening.
- Prepare your students by teaching them to disagree respectfully. I told my students it was ok if their experience differed from the speakers. I encouraged students to talk with the speakers afterwards: “Feel free to tell your story, but don’t yell your story.”
- Keep talking about aspects of the event when it’s over.