Friday, September 14, 2007

United Nations: Youth, Education and Climate Change

Well, one thing leads to another. After a trip to the Arctic, I wound up in Manhattan addressing an international audience at the United Nations. I spoke of what public school classrooms and teachers can offer in a time of global environmental crisis -- citizens with the capacity to understand complex systems and unite with each other as agents of cultural change. Here's the text of my talk as given on Thursday, September 6 in New York City.

I was invited to speak here because I spend a lot of time with some of the funniest, most hopeful and energetic people on the planet: thirteen and fourteen year olds. While my official charge is to teach math and science concepts, my students learn best when I engage them with the forces that shape their lives.

One of the strongest forces confronting my students is ever increasing pressure to consume manufactured goods, in spite of a global environmental crisis. The U.S. advertising industry spends 150 times more a year marketing to children than it did when I was in high school. Rich or poor, the ads tell them, they have the freedom to buy: This comes in lots of forms: ipods; skateboards; shoes; game consoles; cell phones; purses; clothing. . . . and most recently, GREEN.

As though simply purchasing the right goods will solve our environmental problems. Granted, some consumer choices are far better than others. Better to drive a Prius than a Hummer, better a paper cup than Styrofoam, better fluorescent than incandescent. But to exercise stewardship only through consumer choices is an extremely limited stewardship indeed.

Finding solutions to climate change requires cultural transformation. The freedom to buy even if it’s green won’t get us out of this mess. We need a culture focused on collective decisions that remake our infrastructures and re-form the way we live and work together.

As a teacher, I have the power to lead youth to transform culture. Both climate change and systemic change are complex and can evoke paralyzing fear, making uniting across differences difficult. And yet uniting across socioeconomic, philosophical and political differences is just what needs to happen as humanity faces the global crisis. The public school classrooom, with its forced diversity, can be a place to overcome fear and learn the power of collective action. As I tell you one teacher’s story of teaching about climate change, keep in mind that my classroom is a microcosm of the larger culture.

The first time I taught about global warming, I took my cue from my student’s textbook “Weather and Climate”. It was published by Prentice Hall in 2000 and devoted one page of its 175-page middle school science book to global warming. The language was vague:
“human activities MAY be warming the earth’s atmosphere
“if carbon dioxide traps more heat, the result COULD be global warming.”

The little bit that was there however presented an opportunity to make the connections necessary to plant some seeds for change.

I teach 8th grade in the small town of Tumwater, in Washington State. While mostly white, my students are socio-economically diverse. Our community – typical of small US towns -- offers few private schools, and it has only two middle schools, both of which serve a similar mix of suburban and rural areas: Education is compulsory and I teach the wealthy students along with the poor.

This community is extremely dependent on carbon-releasing fuels. Housing prices and lack of public transit are to blame. Population growth in our county has been among the fastest in the nation and affordable housing has leapfrogged into the county’s rural areas while bus service has declined. Homes in the urban core have increased tremendously in value, farm and forest land in outlying areas provide for comparatively inexpensive new housing.

My middle school students are prisoners of an infrastructure that is not their invention. My students do not walk to school. Most of them cannot walk to school, nor can they ride bikes. Distances are too great and safe passage in crossing the interstate and busy boulevards is impossible given the constraints of daylight and the lack of sidewalks. Climate change demands that we transform fossil-fuel dependent infrastructures so that the next generation of Tumwater kids can get to school without driving.

Instead of using the single page devoted to climate change provided by our textbook, I presented my students the evidence about climate change: shrinking glaciers; increased wild fires; spread of malaria; more frequent flooding of coastal cities during storm events. We studied ocean currents, atmospheric convection and the volume of water at different temperatures and in different states. Scared by such drastic changes and the implication that their way of life was the problem, my students balked. Cody said, “What are you trying to tell me Ms. Dean? I can’t drive a truck?!” Just a generation ago Tumwater depended almost entirely on the woods for its economy. In Cody’s mind work means driving a truck, and thanks to the advertising industry, it means the freedom to drive the open roads of the West. He and his classmates expect to be able to drive a truck just like their fathers and grandfathers do. In learning about climate change, they felt scared and stuck and they didn’t like it.

My official charge as a public school teacher is to teach hundreds of isolated academic objectives, to be achieved, individually, by each of my students. Such schooling isolates subjects from one another and separates learning from the forces active in students’ lives. In the thirteen years since I became a teacher, this has gotten worse, much worse. Rather than creating an engaging, integrated, and rigorous context for learning, the current school reform effort charges teachers with tracking and assessing achievement of individuals. This focuses teachers on trying to make students better, without examining the dysfunctional system in which students find themselves. It’s kind of like buying a more energy efficient car and then moving 40 miles out of town for cheaper rent in order to make the car payments. When my students resisted learning about climate change, I could have dropped the subject right then and given a test. I didn’t.

Fear short-circuits critical thinking. I knew that we'd be more likely to be able to push through to more learning if we took the time to talk about how we feel: that way emotions and thoughts wouldn’t get so muddled up in each other. But in my experience, asking eighth graders to name their feelings can be like trying to get a stone to talk.

So I asked the class, "How many of you have ever had a time when things were going wrong and you felt there was nothing you could do about it?" Nearly every hand went up. In nearly every story they told, they were in trouble alone.

My students’ greatest asset in getting past their fear of climate change was right under their noses: They had each other. When my school was built about ten years ago, the state had promised smaller class sizes. I have room for about twenty-four students in my room. I usually have over thirty. From the first day of school I ask my students, “Why would you shoe-horn so many people into such a small space and not rely on each other?” Limited space and resources can force interdependence.

After students had shared their stories I reminded them “As we continue to learn about global warming, expect to be scared sometimes. In most of your stories you were alone. In the global warming story, we'll have each other."

I pressed my students to think past individual contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and consider what we could do together about global warming. We examined sources of CO2 and methane and the ways that the production of almost everything we consume relies on the burning of fossil fuels.

As students examined what it took to make the goods they consume, they chose to look at everything from apples to playing cards to computer consoles. Every item traced to carbon-releasing fuels. At one point Madeleine looked up at me from her study of apples and said, “But Ms. Dean, we have to eat.” Other students vowed to change their ways. Chandra smiled at me one afternoon and said “I’m going to plant a garden.” Ryan started limiting his family’s consumption of aluminum cans. At the same time, Katrina vowed that she still planned to drive a truck, with a carbeurator and Luke announced, “Well you know Ms. Dean, I still want a car!”

I kept a list of climate change solutions sorted under the headings “I can . . .” “We can . . .” and “They can . . .” I wanted students to see what was within their power and control. They decided that the place where they had some power was in their school. And at that point, our school sent all of its waste to the landfill 150 miles away. They researched CO2 emissions from transportation and methane released from landfills and discovered that shifting the waste stream of our school from the landfill to recycling would make a difference. With help from the custodian my students designed a sustainable system and taught the rest of the school about the connection between waste and greenhouse gasses. They organized their community to behave differently. In the words of Cheryl, who is now a student at Tumwater High School, “Teaching everyone in our school about global warming was fun, but what was really cool was that we made change together. Even the other classes are into it.”

By itself, their collective action is not much, yet it represents the unification across socioeconomic, philosophical and political boundaries necessary to change our culture into one that can work together to remake infrastructures. My students experienced something revolutionary in a time of relentless emphasis of individualism. They learned that working together, and in spite of their fear, they could, in fact, create systemic change that meant more than individual choices alone. Since their initial effort, the system has sustained itself in spite of twice-over turnover in students and significant changes in staff. That is cultural change.

My hope is that the my students’ success as change agents will provide them with the mindset and tools to move their culture toward collective action. My hope is that their experience will support them in transcending the barriers, that keep us focused on individual choices rather than on the systemic changes needed to mitigate global warming.

Schooling needs to stop emphasizing individual achievement of isolated academic objectives and use the opportunity provided by shared time and space to transcend boundaries and work together to understand issues that deeply impact our communities. Teachers have the skills and students have the potential to make connections between what they learn in school and the rest of the world. As long as political forces continue to fragment academic subjects from each other and make talented teachers into managers of student progress, our schools will struggle to give us what that the world needs: citizens with the capacity to understand complex systems and unite with each other as agents of cultural change. Now, more than ever, we need less emphasis on individual achievement and the individual freedom to buy. Instead we need an ever deepening understanding of our interdependence and a renewed commitment to each other.

Monday, February 26, 2007

My Dear Students: Polar Bears Offer a Lesson If We Listen

I am in Churchill Manitoba. The welcome sign at the train depot says it’s the Polar Bear Capital of the World. And I haven’t seen a bear. This town lies at the end of a northern spur railroad that touches the edge of the arctic. Southward, peat, marsh, swamp and fen spread all the way to Manitoba. Northward, at this time of year it’s almost solid ice to the poles.

Churchill still has bears. The reason I haven’t seen one is that they are busy right now. The males are out on the ice, working hard to get as fat as they can while they can. The females are deep inland conserving their energy having just birthed cubs. The bears’ yearly cycle depends intimately on the rhythmic freezing and thawing of the ice on Hudson Bay.

Every year, extreme cold freezes Hudson Bay in October. It melts again in June or July. The ring seal, the bears’ primary source of food is available only when the bears can walk the sea ice. As soon as the ice melts, the bears enter a fast until it freezes again. Due to their forced fast off the ice, the bears’ driving purpose during winter is to consume as much fat as possible. They grab a seal where it surfaces to breathe and strip it of its blubber, which is much higher in calories than the meat, leaving the rest for the arctic fox which follow them to take advantage of what the polar bears leave behind. Because of the seasonal thaw, Churchill’s nine hundred or so bears make for dry land as the ice breaks up. There, if healthy, they go into a restful waking summer hibernation, surviving on the fat stores built up over the winter.

Nick studies Churchill’s bears. We talked in the dining hall of the Churchill Northern Studies Center while he waited for the weather to warm and clear. I entered conversation by asking if I could ask a question about polar bears. “Any question about polar bears is just fine with me,” he said.

He has a dream job. He searches for bears by helicopter, stuns them, and weighs and tags them. He tracks them from year to year and looks for trends in the health of Churchill’s bear population.

Nick is tall and thin, with narrow shoulders and a big smile. He looks a little bit like a polar bear himself. I asked what path led him to be an expert in polar bears. He told me the story: It was a matter of taking a different path home from studying for exams.

“Usually I went one way, but this time I took a different street. There on a light post was a little notice that was a different color from those around it. I would never have noticed it if it weren’t a different color. It was about the size of a sticky note. It said they were looking for someone to join a polar bear study, lab work only. No field work. I think that’s why I got it. Everyone wants to do field work. I don’t believe in fate or anything. It was just luck. And now the job I have, it was the same way. The guy who had it before me was supposed to have it for three years and he left a year early. I was just finishing up my Ph.D. in seals and they were looking for someone with a Ph.D. and polar bear experience. Oddly, that was me.”

Nick’s a biologist, but he calls himself an historian. The bears he studies are in trouble and their story will soon be a thing of the past. Every year the ice breaks up earlier. These days, it’s happening up to two weeks sooner than it did a few decades ago. As a result the bears are having to spend more time away from their food source. Land-based prey, even though bears have been known to snack on it, just won’t cut it. When the bears break their fast, they just increase their metabolism. Churchill’s bears are hungry and unlikely to make it through the next fifty years as a population.

What’s happening to these bears is different from the dangers faced by the beaver, the spotted owl, the whooping crane and the bald eagle.
Unlike twentieth century endangered species, these twenty-first century bears aren’t simply losing their habitat, being poisoned or being over-used as a resource. Lost habitat can sometimes be mitigated. We can stop using pesticides. Hunting practices can be changed. Instead of local causes, global human activity is changing the local climate on which Churchill’s bears depend.

Elevated levels of CO2 and methane in the century and a half since the Industrial Revolution have warmed the earth. It’s not that CO2 and methane are atmospheric newcomers. It’s that humanities’ collective lust for fossil fuels and the energy they provide has displaced our planet’s stores of carbon from inside the earth to the atmosphere and large scale agriculture is increasing the amount of methane released from decompositon of organic matter. Global atmospheric carbon and methane and global temperatures correlate directly: as carbon and methane increase, so does the global average temperature.

Warming is happening the quickest in the Arctic and its environmental impact is most dramatic at the edge of the arctic ecosystem. Ask around Churchill and anyone will tell you that things aren’t like they used to be. Winter is shorter. The open water season is longer. Change is happening fastest in the Arctic because there is so much more land mass in the northern hemisphere and land absorbs more heat annually during the warm season than water. In addition, as soon as some ice is lost, more follows. Ice reflects heat far better than water. These are changes in the local climate that local or regional or even Canadian national policies alone can’t undo.

The polar bear mothers, who are the subject of Nick’s spring work, have it hardest. After a summer on land, using as little energy as possible, Churchill’s mother bears go to their dens in and around the Wapusk National Park. There they fast, waiting out their pregnancy until cubs are born in February. Once the cubs are born they nurse on milk forty percent rich in fat. By the time they emerge from their dens in February, eight months into a fast, they weigh only one-fourth what they did when they walked off the ice in the spring. Nick is looking for mothers on their way to feed on seal pups. He’s seeing bears with less fat on them and with fewer cubs. The earlier breakup of the ice means a twenty-five percent reduction in feeding time and it shows.

I asked him how it felt to be studying a population that was struggling. “It’s sad. I hope to be able to tell the story of the bears. And hopefully someone will listen.”

The question with which I’d approached Nick was about a story I’d heard that I couldn’t find confirmed in the literature about bears. People around Churchill report that the bears’ lust for seal oil extends to petrol. Leave gas cans or an oil drum lying around and sooner or later, the bears will go to great lengths to lick it clean. I asked Nick if the bears were attracted to oil because of their craving for fat. Nothing in the Arctic is as oily as seal, except for oil.

Nick refuted the local reports saying he didn’t see any evidence of bears being particularly attracted to oil. He said he’d seen plenty of oil drums left full and untouched surrounded by hundreds of bears. He chocked the reports up to the curiosity of polar bears. “They’ll investigate anything,” he said, “and if they get it on them, they want to clean it off, so it looks like they want to eat it.”

Maybe the rumors of bears being attracted to petrol are a projection of human beings’ seemingly insatiable appetite for it. Wherever bears and humans have co-existed without industrialization they have occupied similar niches. In the Pacific Northwest, bears and humans survived together for centuries on salmon and berries. In the Arctic North bears and humans survived together on ring seal. Since industrialization, goods move all over the word and people no longer rely on local food sources. The needs of bears and humans have seemingly diverged. You can get beef in the Arctic more easily these days than ring seal, and in Seattle, sushi’s more plentiful than coast trailing blackberries. The polar bear’s desire for oil stored in the body of the seal is about survival. Humanity’s desire for oil stored in the body of the earth is different.

In spite of what we know about climate change and risks it presents to the global ecosystem as we know it, the human lust for fossil fuels is unabated. According to a recent report commissioned by the governments of the US and Canada, Russia, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Finland, climate change will make those fuels easier to come by than ever:

Rising global temperatures will melt areas of the Arctic this century, making them more accessible for oil and natural gas drilling. . . . Warmer temperatures would make it easier to drill and ship oil from the Arctic. . . . Offshore oil exploration and production are likely to benefit.” (, retreived 02-17-2007)

The report went on to decline to estimate how high energy prices would have to be to justify drilling in the region. With increased demand for oil, the prices may go high enough. More demand means increasing use and increasing use means that more and more carbon will find its way into our skies. More carbon means higher temperatures. Higher temperatures mean less ice. Less ice means hungry bears.

As if that weren’t enough, oil drilling and shipping in the Arctic pose an additional threat to bears. In the late eighties a small group of Canadian researchers decided to conduct a trial. They were concerned for what might happen to the bears in the event of an oil spill. They captured four bears and dipped two of them in oil tainted water. They were poised to measure what the dipping would do to the insulative quality of the bears’ fur. To their surprize, as soon as the bears emerged, the polar bear compulsion to be clean took over. The bears licked themselves spotless and had soon died of poisoning, in spite of the horrified researchers’ efforts to save them.

Churchill’s polar bears aren’t likely to fare better than the two who died in the study. Even barring an oil spill, forced to come off the ice sooner, many don’t have the stores of fat to see them through their long summer fast. Fewer survive. Fewer mothers give birth to fewer cubs. In the last decade, Churchill’s population of bears has declined by twenty-five percent. Given current climate models, spring will continue to occur sooner for at least the coming 50 years. The bears of Churchill occupy the southern range of habitat for a global species that spans three continents.

I asked Nick what he thinks will happen. “Well,” he said, “that depends. Some climate models predict that all the Arctic ice will break up. Some say less. I think what’s most likely is probably somewhere in between. Perhaps they’ll move north. Maybe they won’t. Either way, Churchill’s bears are going to disappear.”

“Do you think it will be in your lifetime?” I asked.

“Yes. Probably.”

Luckily for us, Churchill’s bears won’t disappear from one day to the next. They’ll continue to do their best hunting on the ice that remains. And Nick will be there to observe changes in their habits and population. And he will tell the story. The question is, will we listen?

Friday, February 23, 2007

My Dear Students: Thank You for Your Questions III

How long did it take you to get acclimated to your new environment? How many layers of clothes do you have to wear to keep warm?

I'm still not acclimated, but I am getting better at dressing. I've finally figured out how to wear the right combination of mittens. I find I'm happiest if I can wear enough clothes that I am warm without my parka, and then I throw the parka on top and I'm cozy.

How much ice is measured per day?

We dig two to six pits per day and record density and hardness and temperature of each later of snow. Sometimes the pits have ice in them, and sometimes they don't. Without counting the VERY DEEP pit, we have moved 34,762.5 kilo grams of snow and ice in the last ten days.

Do you get to build an igloo?

I helped. You'll hear more of that story later.

What types of tools and machines are you going to use? What kind of fuel do they use?

Here is a picture of our tool kit. We also use ice corers to measure the density of the snow and instruments called ram penetrometers to measure its hardness.

Our "mass-transit" snowmobiles burn gasoline. We all pile into the boxes and get towed along six people at a time.

Why did you chose to go on this specific trip?

I got the opportunity to go on this trip thanks to a phone call from someone at Earthwatch who had read an article I had written about teaching about global warming. (You can follow the link to the article at the right.) I applied for a fellowship (like a scholarship) and got it. I thought it would be a great opportunity to see a part of the world that few have a chance to see, and way to learn about an issue that many people see as the most urgent one of our time. I'll use my own learning to inspire my students to make a difference in the world.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

My Dear Students: Thank You for Your Questions II

How deep is the snow there?

Now that's a complicated question. Do you remember the story about every thing there is to know about snow? Well, one of the things we are measuring is the depth of the snow and it varies wildly with location. At each site we dig a pit. The deepest ones are over 80 cm deep and the shallowest, only 2 cm deep. The difference is due to uneven ground, trees, the wind which is almost always blowing. Here's are a picture that shows both the deepest and shallowest areas. It's a very bumpy peat bog. The white patches are as deep as the bit and the parts with peat showing through are very shallow.

Yesterday we dug and sampled pits that were about nine feet deep complete with stairs to get in and out. The snow had drifted during high winds and gathered behind a small island of trees on the tundra.

When I asked Dr. Kershaw what he'd be using the data for, he said it was to figure out yearly precipitation. The same kind of work must go on anywhere that large numbers of people depend on snow melt for their dry season water. In a changing climate, rain and snow fall will shift, making prediction based on past years more and more difficult. Follow this link to a short article relating snow pack and global warming:

Here is the view from inside the pit. I was passing up samples and helping dig core samples out of the wall of snow. The temperature under the snow at the bottom of the pit was quite warm (-1 degrees celsius) while the air temperature was -34 degrees C.

Have you seen a arctic fox yet?

We haven't been lucky enough to see an Arctic Fox, but we were lucky enough to see these tracks.

Do people in Churchill use sled dogs?

There are four teams of dogs in town. There is a big 250 mile race schedule to start from Churchill on March 24th.

Have you seen polar bears?

I haven't seen polar bears. (Watch for a story later this week that will explain why.)

How many people are living where you are?

There are about fifteen people on our team and a group visiting to watch and study the Aurora. All together it amounts to about forty people staying overnight at the station each night. That station is about 15 miles outside the town of Churchill.

In your opinion, can we reverse the damage we have caused to the Arctic?

The climate is changing faster in the Arctic than anywhere else on earth. There are two main reasons for this: more land mass than water in the north means more heat is absorbed; and currents bring warm water from the south. A third factor will also increase the speed of warming near the pole: As ice melts, more water is exposed, and water does not reflect like ice does.

Dr. Kershaw, our chief scientist answered your question with a metaphor: He compared humanity to the captain of the Titanic. We know we're going to hit the iceberg, and we don't have a choice about that. We can however impact whether we hit it dead on at high speed or slow down and glance off of it. Here is a graph from the International Panel on Climate Change website showing different predictions of future CO2 that depend on the decisions that all of us make every day. Click on it to make it bigger. Go to the source to find out what the different predictions mean.


Many of you have been asking what students can do about global warming. Watch for a message in the coming days for some ideas.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

My Dear Students: The Cryosphere

A few entries back I told you that the research we’re doing here is adding to our knowledge of the cryosphere. I didn’t tell you what cryosphere means, and still won’t. See if you can figure it out from these facts, which all have to do with the cryosphere. Read them, discuss them and post as complete and detailed a definition of the cryosphere as you can.

1. The ice in the basalt caves of Washington State is formed due to the trapping of cold winter air.

2. If you were to urinate on the snow, and it were to freeze, it would become part of the cryosphere. (That fact is for my fourth period student who’s been wondering. I won’t be trying it myself until the blizzard is over.)

3. 25% of the Earth’s landmass is affected by permafrost. Permafrost is land whose temperature is below freezing for a full summer, winter and summer.

4. If the glaciers of Greenland were to melt, sea level would rise by seven meters.

5. The polar ice caps reflect light and heat rather than absorbing it which keeps the polar regions cooler.

6. About 20% of the world’s terrestrial carbon is in permanently frozen peat bogs.

7. Climate change is reducing the extent of the crysphere.

Sources:, Dr. Peter Kershaw, University of Alberta (personal communication, 2/17/07, Churchill, Manitoba)

Here are some beautiful pictures of the cryosphere taken by my friend Alan.

Monday, February 19, 2007

My Dear Students: Thank You for Your Questions I

Starting today, I'll be answering the questions you've been asking. I will try to get to most of them over the next week. In some cases they overlap, so you may not see the exact wording of your question. Keep on sending me your wonderings and I'll do my best to get to them all. JD

1. What are the accomodations like for scientists in the field?

Here is a picture of the building where we eat and sleep. It's the only maintained building in what amounts to the ruins of a joint Canadian-US rocket testing site abandoned in the late 60s. It's plenty warm even though fine snow drifted under the door during the blizzard on Saturday. We sleep in bunks, two to four to a room, and we eat great food three times a day prepared my our good-natured cook named Mark. I plan to get his recipe for potato salad before I come home.

2. What's it like running on that snow?

Well, that depends on the the snow. If you thought snow was snow was snow, here are some words to change your mind.

upsik -- wind beaten snow
zastrugi -- wind beaten scoured snow
theh-ni-zee -- fluffy snow
pukak -- course crystalline layer of snow formed at the base of snowpack (It's beautful when you dig it up and the the crystals sparkle in the sun. JD)
pittuk -- a snow drift
matsaq -- snow on the ground soaked with water
siqoq -- drifting snow

Notice that most of these northern words for snow involve wind, which I'm getting a lot of.

3. Can you share some Inuit words?

Here are some words I know:
An iglu is a home built of upsik. (Also an Inuit word, see above.)
A qamatik is a sled with runners to carry freight, including field workers like me.

4. What is your fave. and least fave. thing about the Arctic?

My favorite thing about the Arctic is the absolute and complete silence. If you sit still long enough for your nylon not the rustle in the cold you hear absolutely nothing. I've never heard silence like that before even growing up close to the wilderness in Idaho.

My least favorite thing is planning a half hour in advance to go outside. I'd probably get better at it, but so far every day, I've had to redo at least three major components of the process due to forgetting about one of the early layers. Today I made an improvement by figuring out how to wear enough clothes so that I'm warm enough without the parka, and then I put the parka on too. Toasty! I just have to remember to get my boots on before I'm fully clothed otherwise. I keep on working up a sweat getting the things on when I'm already bundled up and still need shoes on to go outside. Once we're bundled we stay warm as long as we keep moving.

5. Daniel wants to know if the food's good.

Daniel, don't worry. I'm getting plenty of food, and enjoying eating about twice as much as usual in order to stay warm. Here's the room where they feed us.

6. Dani is asking if you dump water out of a cup, will it freeze immedietley and crash on the ground? Bagel wants to know if when you urinate outside, does it freeze?

Dani, the water seems not to freeze in the air. I'll be trying again tomorrow to see if a smaller amount will, or if it will freeze at temperatures lower than -28C. I'll let you know. Bagel, stayed tuned for Tuesday's post about the cryosphere. That's where you'll find the answer to your question.

7. Any birds? Any insects?

We've seen ptarmagin and and redpolls. No insects.

8. How about auroras? Have you seen any yet? If so, can you describe them?

I did stay up one night to see the Aurora. It doesn't happen every night and we have to get up very early every morning, so I've seen it just that once. Words don't describe it, but here is a picture of the Aurora I saw taken by Wan-Li who is a biologist working at a nearby national park.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

To Teachers: Global Warming Controversy -- Use Graphs to Stimulate Student Thinking

The week started with Evan’s* announcement that he had seen “An Inconvenient Truth” the night before and that he still wanted a car. I ran a quick poll. “How many of you want a car?”

Every thirteen and fourteen year old hand went up. Of course they all want a car! They live in a community with few sidewalks, very limited bus service and a town center that could best be described as “dispersed”. Global warming was on Luke’s mind because of his teacher’s upcoming trip to study climate change at the edge of the Arctic. In this same classroom two years earlier I’d brought reluctant eighth graders to take action to reduce their school’s contribution of greemhouse gases by organizing an effective recycling program. Now, with the support of the National Geographic Foundation, I was about to learn about climate change first hand by joining a research team on the shore of Hudson Bay.

This year my students are less resistant to learning about global warming. For one thing they know more. The media is finally reporting the concensus of the scientific community that our globe is warming and anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gasses are a significant contributor to the trend. Another boost came from the thoughtful and sensitive reporting of the local media. Announcement of my trip coincided with a nearby school district temporarily banning “An Inconvenient Truth”. Suddenly it appeared as though I was putting my neck out to pursue a topic I thought was important. And my classroom was getting attention for it.

One of the first questions my students asked was “Why is An Inconvenient Truth controversial?” Reporters had asked me the same thing. Reporters and students alike got the same answer: pondering silence. I didn’t want to shut down their hope for change by simply telling them that it was just too inconvenient and that made people resistant: we'll look at barriers to change later. Neither did I want to frame the issue in terms of party politics, because it’s one that has to transcend all boundaries if we are to get anywhere with it. Neither of the two dominant parties has taken it seriously. It’s not about the difference between liberal and conservative, for liberal economic policies are what have increasingly opened up international transport of goods and thereby increased the production of CO2. What we need is some serious and very conservative conservation, and avenues that support youth to take action.

It wasn’t until I began thinking about how I would use the topic of global warming to teach math that I began to have an answer that was simultaneously open-ended, accurate, and focused enough to keep my students engaged. It would also, I hoped, help them recognize the power of their own thinking.

I proposed, “Al Gore does a great job interpreting a lot of graphs and telling you what to think about global warming. Maybe some people don’t like to be told what to think, and that’s why they don’t like the film.”

(Dr. Pete Kershaw explains climate change in Churchill. Come back in a few days and I'll have this graph and more to share.)

Then I showed them an episode of the film in which Gore interprets a graph of temperature and atmospheric CO2. Students can easily see that the lines fit together. (This is chapter 9 in the film; from about minute 20 - 25) Then Gore gets on a lift to illustrate that CO2 and temperature are going through the roof. After that, I played the TV news story in which I announce to the world that my students have the analytical skills to read and interpret graphs. I tied the two stories together by saying “Al Gore feels passionate about global warming, but you don’t need him to tell you what you think. You’ll be reading graphs and coming to your own conclusions tomorrow.”

That night I spent a half hour printing graphs from the International Panel of Climate Change’s just-released materials. (Available at I’d love to tell you which ones too use, but a walk through them is fascinating and at least half of them would have worked for this activity. Large versions downoad fairly quickly even through a phone line. I printed eight in color for my classes of 30 - 34. I also used a few from the links on the Feb 4 post called "Graphs to Interpret")) Among them were average global temperatures, global distribution of CO2 generation, atmospheric CO2 levels, sea level, the global distribution of greenhouse gas emissions and shares of greenhouse gas emissions by industrial and economic sector. Taken altogether, the graphs represented a complex array of material. Scales of time differed vastly, as did units of measurement.

(This is a graph from the IPCC website linked to the left.)

In spite of the complexity, I felt my students could accurately interpret the graphs for two reasons: their algebra skills are strong, especially when it comes to visual representations; and their level of engagement with the topic was high.

Just to be on the safe side, I modeled a presentation for them. I chose a graph that showed the per capita CO2 emissions of twenty different nations. I held up the graph and interpreted it, “This graph seems to be saying that the US produces more CO2 per person than any other country in the world, except Luxumberg, and that it produces almost ten times the amount per person as China.” I was careful to use only the data on the graph, without adding any background knowledge.

They assembled in groups of four. One person selected the graph (first-come, first-serve -- always a motivator in a middle school classroom). Another person read all the words and numbers on the graph, while each group’s facilitator saw to it that everyone in the group could see the graph at all times and that the person elected to present the graph be ready in just five minutes. I gave students the phrase “This graph seems to be saying that . . . .” as a starting point.

Most of the conclusions they drew were not news to them. Two graphs however generated first silence, and then a flurry of questions. The first was a pie chart that showed that 23% of greenhouse gas emissions come from power generation. Alan jumped up and ran for the light and switched it off to a chorus of “One classroom at a time!” Then I walked over to turn off my computer monitor which was malfunctioning anyway. In our afternoon sun-brightened classroom, we next looked at a bar graph comparing total CO2 emissions from about 30 northern hemisphere nations. A group working on this graph had decided to add up the emissions starting with the least polluting and working up to the United States. They discovered that the total emissions of the bottom 25 countries combined still did not quite equal that of the United States.

This surprised many of them. Yes, they knew we are a fossil fuel dependent society, but we need reminders of how different our way of life is from so much of the world. Furthermore, by and large, my students are proud of their country. We say the pledge every day, and the adults in our community take pride in being American citizens. Seeing that the US produces more carbon by far than any other nation wasn’t something to take pride in.

“What can we do?”
“What about biodiesel?”

I answered with a brief explanation of the carbon cycle, in which I explained the difference between releasing long-stored carbon from fossil fuels and burning fuels whose production had involved the trapping of atmospheric carbon through the growth of plants.

Sara sits in the back row and had been quietly fighting a sneeze and listening to all the discussion and questions. As we were getting ready to leave she caught my eye, smiled wide and said “I’m going to plant a garden.”

When I return from the Arctic, I will ask my students whether THEY think An Inconvenient Truth is controversial and if so, why. I'm interested in what they think.

*Students' names have been changed.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

My Dear Students: I Know How You Feel

So you arrive, early in the morning. You're a little grumpy because you're tired. Even though you may not show it, you are quite willing to do whatever is asked.

"Please take out your pencil."

You reach for the pocket where you keep your pencil. It's your pencil pocket and that's where you keep it. Really, ALWAYS.

It's not there.

You know you only have 30 seconds to produce a pencil and your pocket is empty.

You ask your partner, "Do you have a pencil?"

He'd give you one if he had an extra. He doesn't.

You ask the guy on the other side of you, "Do you have a pencil?" Nothing.

Behind? Same story.

Time is running out. Pens aren't allowed, but they'll do in a pinch. You know having a pen is better than nothing. You check your pen pocket. You've got one stashed for later in the day. Luck! It's there. Hopefully your teacher won't notice you're using pen instead of pencil, and you feel grateful that at least you didn't have to ask her to bail you out.

We were a bit tired and grumpy on the way out to the upland spruce forest. It was minus 40 C and colder due to the chill from gusts of wind. Pete, our team leader, had chosen the forest because the trees would shelter us from the winds of the coming blizzard.

The shelter comes at a cost however. The trees catch the snow blown in from the tundra around and they don't let any that falls in place go, even when the winds reach 70 kilometers per hour, like they had all night. So the snow is deep, which means digging all the way to the ground took a while. The crystals were large light and fragile, so we had to work delicately so as not to disturb our pit's wall of snow with its distict layers.

Once the pit is dug at each site, for every layer we measure depth. And record it with a pencil. We measure the size of the crystals. And record it with a pencil. We measure each layer's density. And record it with a pencil. For each layer, we measure hardness and temperature and record the figures, with a pencil. It amounts to more than 300 numbers to be carefully recorded for entry later into the team's data base.

We had reached the bottom and climbed in. Alan, our layers expert had identified the six layers in this pit, all with their own quality and size of snow crystal. Each layer had its own density, hardness, temperature and depth. I was sorting out our equipment and Kate pulled out the clipboard to start recording the first numbers. Pete had instructed us to record only in pencil, because pen smears.

Our pencil has its place. The clipboard has a string, and the pencil is tied around the string. The pencil is not there.

At the same time all three of us remember Alan borrowing the pencil the night before. He says, "It's my fault." Kate says, "I should have checked." I say nothing, and instinctively reach for my ear where I keep a pencil. Of course it's not there. The metal would freeze to my skin and it would get all tangled up in my balaclava, my hat and my scarf.

The three of us look around. If we don't find a pencil, we'll hold up the whole group in the freezing cold while the blizzard approaches while we do our job with someone's else's pencil which we can't borrow until after they finish. We ask the group to the right of us. They'd give us a pencil if they had one. They don't. Behind? Nothing. We ask the group to the left of us. "Do you have a pencil?" We're in luck. Deeter has one. It’s a beautiful mechanical pencil, refillable with a nice thick shaft that maybe we can grip even with our mitts on. Kate starts writing. Dang! The lead breaks and there’s no more inside even after I take off my mittens and dismantle it looking for a lost bit of lead.

Then Alan starts digging, deep. He thinks he'd got a pen in his bag somewhere.

We’re not to use pen.

“Pen smears,” Pete said when he trained us.

This is science and you can’t do smeared science. At this point a pen is better than nothing. He finds one. But does a pen work at - 40 C? No way no how. We can see the little scratches and circles on the corner of the paper, but no ink.

Then I start digging. I've got a little hot pack in my pocket that I had stashed that morning to keep my poor hands from freezing whenever they weren't going to freeze anyway due to being outside of my mitts in order to be able to work the equipment. Kate wraps the pack around our pen and puts the end of it in her mouth. The ink starts flowing, mostly. And we proceed.

We record our more than 300 measures from this pit and the next one. As before, we finished last, but thanks to help, we weren’t far behind the others. And we beat the blizzard.

All morning that poor pen worked off and on, so that when it came to entering data -- all three hundred plus individual measurements for each of our two pits -- we had to read some of them by feeling the back of the page for the indent we'd made in our attempt to write.

Note to self: next time you travel to the Arctic to collect data on everything there is to know about snow, grab a handful of stubby golf pencils. They travel light and they'll do in a pinch.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

My Dear Students: Getting Used to the Arctic

Many of you asked me about whether I was afraid of the cold. Some of you thought a bit further and wondered how long it would take to get used to it. You know you have become acclimatized to the Arctic when you decide to go outside for a run in just two layers of wool when it's still 18 degrees F below freezing. Our lead scientist declared today balmy. He's very acclimated. Ordinarily, it's much much colder, and really this warm weather is only foretelling a storm front that is supposed to bring a blizzard tomorrow. The weather service predicts wind chill of -45 C. Don't worry. I still have the big red parka.

To Teachers: A Little Fun with Math

Challenge students to figure out at what temperature the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales meet up. In other words, at what temperature do we use the same value in both scales?

Here are formulas and a website for more background, The website has background and ideas for introducing the conversion to students not yet familiar with algebraic notation.

To convert from Fahrenheit to Celsius:

Tc=temperature in degrees Celsius Tf=temperature in degrees Fahrenheit
(* means multiply; Tc means temperature in celsius; Tf means temperature in Fahrenheit)

To convert from Celsius to Fahrenheit:

Tc=temperature in degrees Celsius Tf=temperature in degrees Fahrenheit

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

My Dear Students: What to Know about Snow

When we arrived in the briefing room for the weather report (minus 37 degrees C including wind chill) at 6:45, we heard we’d spend the morning in the classroom, learning procedures, then eat lunch and bundle up for an afternoon in the cold. I had kitchen duty and had so far arrived five minutes late to every meeting, and so I ate as fast as I could, found the missing five minutes in the fact that my watch wasn’t set right, and washed the dishes. I arrived just in time to join what would become my Group.

Kate is from England. She just got a degree in medicine and she knows quite a lot about being precise. She takes good notes and asks good questions. Alan is from Massachusetts. He has a lot of energy, and three older brothers and seems willing to laugh at most of my jokes. He also likes to dream and scheme about how to make the world a better place for everyone. I find it hard to sit still, and I can learn and remember no more than three facts at a time. This was my Group.

What came next was a full three hours (count them -- THREE hours) of directions during which I was exposed to (I will not say learned -- that came later, in the pit) more ways to measure snow than I knew existed. I did my best not to distract my group too much when my overloaded mind needed to do anything but listen. (I won’t tell you what I did instead of listening!) Our kits for the afternoon had no fewer than fifteen different tools. The tools, used correctly would measure the snow’s depth, temperature, crystalline structure, density and hardness. Some of these we’d have to measure a dozen different times and ways in every three by four foot pit we dug.

After lunch, I put on my socks and my socks and my socks. And my long johns and my long johns and my long johns. Then came windpants, hat, parka and mitts and the goggles that were a hometown donation from Smith Optics. Then came the boots. I grunted my way into them, only to figure out later that I needed to stop at the second pair of socks. The third pair made things too tight: later my feet would be cold.

We trundled out to the garage to the snowmobiles and the qamatiks. A qamatik is a plywood box with sides chin high when you sit down in it. Even Anglos use a lot of Inuit words here. Those words are the best way to say a lot of things. We loaded in.

In less than ten minutes we got to the site and my Group was assigned an intricate and complex pit to dig and measure. I started by putting down one of the most expensive and specialized tools. Alan buried it with our excavated snow. Of course we didn’t know this yet. I stood around wondering what to do with myself while Alan went at the pit. I could hardly remember the purpose of any of the tools and we hadn’t done any talking and planning about who would do what, except to share that none of us remembered much of the directions and we all hoped that together we’d remember most of it. I offered to take over digging and found out I didn’t have the technique and handed back the shovel, and then tried taking core samples only to find it impossible to get the tube out of the snowpack with snow in it. I abandoned that to try testing the hardness of the snow, which would take that expensive and buried tool. After a trip to the snowmobiles we realized it must be buried, all of which distracted all of us from each of our measuring tasks. Kate took over thermometers, pulling them out, and forgetting to record temperatures. Then we had some trouble with the depth of our pit which seemed to vary wildly.

Meanwhile the groups around us were wrapping up all forty or so measurements and we began to realize that this intricate and complex pit might get the better of us. Luckily, we weren’t above getting help, and managed to wrap things up an hour before before sundown. That gave us time for the next pit, which went much better. The three of us fell into an unspoken rhythm. The snow in that pit was different. It was lighter, and it lacked the three ice layers of the other pits. It was 42 cm deep instead of 59 cm deep and had only five distinct layers instead of eight.

Why bother to know so much about snow? Well, on this local scale it matters to voles and caribou. If it’s too hard or deep in the wrong places they can’t get to their food. On a global scale, it’s part of of the cryosphere. (Look up the roots of this word, and you’ll know exactly what it means.) The cryosphere plays an enormous and little understood role in Earth’s climate. Changes in what’s frozen will ripple through the next century. A comical afternoon of floundering through measuring the snow in a pit the size of a wood box adds a day’s data gathering to what we know about this global system.

(PS -- If you are wondering how cold I was today, look up the formula for converting C to F, calculate it at -37C and post the result as a comment.)

My Dear Students: First Impressions

Near the end of my train ride, the trees seemed to peter out. To the left of the train was a huge open expanse, perfectly flat but broken by chunks and lumps of ice and snow. To the right I began to see a cluster of buildings -- low like others I’d seen so far, but this time more of them. Out toward the open were a collection of buildings larger than the others. I guessed those tall buildings were the land end of a port. Identifying it as a port was made easier by the jackets worn by some of the people on the train. They wore union coats that said Churchill Stevedores. I know that a stevedore has something to do with ships, but I’m not sure exactly what. (Can you look up or ask someone about longshoreman and stevedore for me and tell me the difference?) Recognizing stevedores as port workers and the tall buildings as a port made it easier for me to identify all that flat bumpy ice as Hudson Bay.

After a brief stop for rented boots, we made our way out of town on the only road there is. It wound past the airport and along the shore. About half-way to the research station we went past a huge building with five giant doors. Turns out, it’s the town dump. Indoors! Trouble with bears and an old dump that was contaminating the drinking water has brought the community to put up a building to house the trash. They recycle like crazy, but still, it fills up. And just like our garbage in Western Washington it travels by train to a landfill. I wonder if they (and we) could find another way of taking care of what we don’t need that wouldn’t increase the CO2 in the atmosphere like tranporting waste does. How much that we throw away could we have found a way not to buy to begin with?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Arrival in Churchill

View coming into town.

Here's the train that brought me 1,000 miles north.

The Research Station

A short outing to test my goggles.

The view from my window.
The bars are to keep out the polar bears.

My Dear Students: Almost There

I've been on this train so long I feel like I must be at the end of the world. Since leaving Winnipeg, the train has gone neither up nor down, except for a tiny rise to get on the spur track that took us for a stop at the little town of Thompson. (Try looking it up on Google Earth and see if you can find a channel that the train crosses between lakes. Oddly I saw open, unfrozen water there.) The towns are low too, except for The Pas, which has a cluster of old hotels and government buildings a few stories high. Mostly the buildings hunker down low in the snow with a bright coat of paint so you can find them.

We've been traveling through trees since I woke up to a very slow sunrise and a waning moon next to Venus yesterday morning. The trees further south were skinny and not so tall -- nothing like those at home. It's like these spruce draw in their arms to avoid the cold. Up here -- one hour outside Churchill, they have gotten even smaller, and many have branches and needles on just one side. The last time I saw a timber train was in Thompson. It was loaded with pole logs with a super tight grain, most of them no bigger around than a teacup. Behind the log cars were the biggest propane tanks I've ever seen. It made me wonder if the Arctic is where we get our propane, they were so big. Or maybe the people who live here need the propane to keep their low buildings warm.

I've been out in the cold twice now. The first time was in Winnipeg. Even though it was minus 31 F, I overdressed. I was sweating and my fingers inside my mittens got slippery. The second time, in The Pas, I wore less. Nylon makes a different sound at these temperatures. It crinkles like paper. I ran in the fifteen minutes we had to fuel the train. The cold air hurt my lungs and made me cough.

I didn't think yesterday's sunrise would amount to much, but we got a whole day of light out of it, and a few minutes of bright sun that called for sunglasses. It didn't get dark until 6 pm. I am thankful for the good food I packed and for the warm coffee in my cup. I wonder what today will hold.

My Dear Students: Low Sun and Skinny Trees

I woke up this morning to a waning moon next to Venus and a sunrise that took hours and looks like it will culminate in a low noon. Snow is blowing up from beside the tracks and dusting skinny trees. Every once in a while there are surprizing open stretches of perfectly flat snow that must be ice. I have left my Atlas at home. Is there anyone who can find Cormorant, between The Pas and Thompson, Manitoba on a map for me and tell me what body of water I’m looking at?

My Dear Students: Winnipeg Geography

Winnipeg is a medium sized city set on the flattest plain I've ever seen. Roads cut across the prairie like graph paper. Each large square hosts a smaller square of trees surrounding a house. Square follows square follows square. Dirt on the sides of the roads shows the time since the last snow. Just before landing, we crossed the deep curves of a slow-flowing river. Where the ground doesn’t fall quickly, rivers turn back on each other like a garter snake ready to advance on the driveway. And where it’s this cold, the rivers freeze solid. I saw two tiny shacks on the ice and next to them two little bundles: people fishing I think.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

My Dear Students: Chicago Layover

I'm not in the Arctic yet, but this may be my last chance for internet access until I get to Churchill, and I wanted you to have a message from me when you got to school on Monday. I'm in Chicago and in an hour or so I board a plan for Winnipeg where the temperature is -31 degrees F. So far the only wildlife I have seen is a tiny bird flying INSIDE the Chicago Airport. I wonder if it overwinters in the airport instead of flying south.

Post me your wonderings about the arctic and climate change and I'll reply as soon as I can.


Ms. Dean

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Jana Dean in Action

To Teachers: Graphs to Interpret the Math of Global Warming

My students are better at making graphs than they are at reading them. And the people who have brought us our state standardized test recognize the ability to interpret graphical representations of data as an essential skill: My students aren't likely to pass the high stakes high school exit exam without that ability. My students also learn better when they are actively engaged in making meaning. Understanding the science of global warming is all about being able to make meaning of graphs and to understand the relationship between variables.

This week I plan to introduce global warming with a video entitled Arctic Meltdown, Rising Seas (See resources section of "Teaching about Global Warming" in the Useful Websites section of this page). It does a great job of putting a human face and story on the issue. I'll also have them explore the Union of Concerned Scientists' "Climate Hot Map." In order to allow them to make their own meaning of the facts behind global warming, I also plan to have them read and interpret graphs that show the research behind scientific opinions about global warming. Here are some links to graphs:
(Middle school lesson plan. Scroll down to see graphs)

I'll likely print graphs for them to analyze in groups of four. I'll ask them to identify the dependent and independent variables, indentify trends and write a caption for their graphs. For my classes of thirty to thirty-four eighth graders, I'll need at least four good graphs. That way we can have two presentations of each graph.

You can use the links for your own research (like I will later this week) or turn students loose to follow links on this site to find their own graph. They'll probably know that all they need to do is cut and paste URLs into the address window of their browser.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

To Teachers: Useful Links

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

If you follow the link to graphics, you hit the motherlode. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an international agency charged by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) with assessing the global impact of climate change and making recommendations for action. Materials are peer-reviewed by scientists and accessible to our students.

Union of Concerned Scientists

I've used this site from the Union of Concerned Scientists to expose my middle school students to the palpable signs of global warming. Be prepared for stunned silence and to allow students to express their sadness and worry. I find it helpful to ask students to express what concerns them most about what they have learned for exploring the map.

Teaching About Global Warming in Truck Country

This is a link to an article I wrote called "Teaching about Global Warming in Truck Country." Follow the story of some western Washington public middle school students as they learn about global warming and do something about it. It appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of Rethinking Schools.

Earthwatch Institute

I am travelling to the arctic thanks to a fellowship from Earthwatch Institute made possible by a grant to Earthwatch from the National Geographic Education Foundation. Log on to learn more. My February 2007 expedition is called Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge.

Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge

This PDF provides a good introduction to what I’ll be doing, besides staying warm, while I’m at the edge of the arctic. Follow the link and lick on “Classroom Earth Case Study”. 

An Inconvenient Truth Educator’s Resource

This site features three well-designed, detailed lesson plans that use the film An Inconvenient Truth as a resource. They recommend sections of An Inconvenient Truth for student viewing. The Tier 1 lesson emphazises personal choice and provides guidance for having students calculate their own atmospheric carbon contribution. Tier 2 looks at public policy and the Kyoto Protocol. Tier 3 is the most comprehensive and features a chemistry lesson for the carbon cycle and a framework for student action on global warming. All three downloads have a lot of material in them: more than could be used without an exclusive focus on global warming. They are designed however so that they can be used flexibly. NOTE: You have to create an account and log-in. Logging in seems to be quirky, so once you’re there, I’d suggest spending the time to get what you need.

Carbon Calculator

This site calculates individual carbon contributions to the atmosphere due to household energy use and transportation. Having students do it would be a way to stimulate conversations at home, as much of the information needed is not the kind of thing students know about already.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Start Off Story

Channel 4 KOMO - TV news called during my fourth period math class today. We were about to start correcting homework and tackle the subject of making projections from linear trends. The phone call got their attention. I dropped the plan and we launched into a conversation about global warming.

The reporter at the TV station had read an article about my upcoming mid February trip in the local paper. The title was "When science meets controversy head-on: Middle school teacher turns arctic researcher as schools consider how to teach environmental issues." Check to see if it's still posted. My students had read it too. One of them asked, "Ms. Dean, why is it so controversial?"

The bulk of the article focuses on the decision of a nearby school district (since repealed) to ban showing "An Inconvenient Truth". I stalled for thinking time before I answered and then told them that I thought there were two reasons.

I told my students that I thought the first reason is that a lot of people don't have the science background to understand the issue. I went on to tell the story of the well-meaning anonymous 9 pm caller who wanted me to know that there were tropical fern fossils in Washington State. Someone in the front row burst out "What about continental drift?!!" Thanks to her science teacher across the hall, she made my point.

I went on to the difference between weather and climate, which are easy to conflate. Weather is the day-to-day variation in precipitation, wind and temperature. Climate consists of long-term seasonal patterns. A community member shared this analogy with me: climate is like the clothes you have in your closet; weather what you're wearing today. I'd been recently emailed a graph showing the average yearly temperatures in Washington State. The graph shows a wiggly line with a long-term trend line drawn through it. The graph is perfect for teaching about trend lines; and the line drawn shows slightly rising temperatures for Washington State. (Go to to find your own state.) I told my students that scientists are looking at lots of graphs like this to predict local, regional and global changes in climate.

"The second reason is controversial," I said, "It is both political and economic. Aside from science background, there are other reasons for people not wanting to believe what we hear about global warming. Why might that be?" I asked. Here's what they said:

Lost profits.
It's sad.
It's scary.
They don't care.
Oil companies don't care and just want to make money off us.
It's hard to change.
It's not convenient.

I didn't have the time in one class period to have the class take a critical look at all the students' ideas, but I will later. I did, however, talk about how inconvenient I'd found it to ride my bike to school one day a week. It takes an hour, but if you graph it, the 20% reduction in fossil fuel consumption adds up. I quit mid-winter when it became dangerous in the dark busy 4pm streets of my northern city. I promised to start up again as soon at it gets light enough for me to feel safe during rush hour.

Focusing on an individual an personal commitment like the one I have tried to make was easy. It will be harder to build background and thinking habits for my students to seek ways to influence the social and economic policies that keep us so dependent on fossil fuels.

Lots of questions ensued. "How will sea levels rise?" "Will Olympia flood?" "Will the ocean rise on the other side of the U.S.?" "Why will sea level rise?" I answered as best I could. I'm not usually the kind of teacher who can do a lot of lecturing and hold their attention. At one point I asked, "Are you bored?" They responded, "No! This is way more important than math!" I turned their attention again to the day's learning goal which was "to make predictions based on linear trends." Then I pointed to the graph I'd sketched on the board. "This is math!" I said.

Then a student in the second row asked, "Ms. Dean, do you think the world is going to end?"

"No way," I answered, "I'm a mother. And I wouldn't bring children into a world I thought would end. And I'm a teacher. And you young people are the future. Why would I spend time with you, the future, if I thought the world was going to end?"