Teachers in Maryland are about to get new help and encouragement to talk about the touchy topic of global warming in their classrooms. The National Science Foundation announced Wednesday that it is awarding $5.8 million for improving climate-change education in Maryland and Delaware through a partnership including universities and school systems from both states.
The two-state initiative is one of six such education projects the foundation is funding across the country and in the nation's Pacific island territories.
"At this point in our existence it's really important people understand about climate, why it's changing and what our options are," said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and one of the leaders of the Maryland-Delaware partnership.
The effort aims to bring together scientists, teachers and those who train teachers to develop new lessons and instructional materials for conveying the complex — and, to some at least, controversial — issue of how and why the Earth's climate is changing.
The participants will focus on integrating climate-change lessons into existing science courses in grades eight through 12, rather than try to cram another course into crowded class schedules.
Led by the University System of Maryland and the University of Delaware, the partnership includes Towson University, the Maryland State Department of Education and Maryland Public Television. MPT will provide multimedia resources and may produce programs on climate change for broadcast to the public, Boesch said.
Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the state education department, said the federally funded effort is timely because it comes as Maryland and other states are developing new standards for teaching science, including climate change.
"This is something we know is important," he said. "I think this grant will help our kids learn even more."
The federal funding is intended to cover five years' work, Boesch explained, with the first year largely devoted to holding workshops for teachers and preparing educational resources.
Information to be provided to teachers will be tailored to address how climate change manifests itself in the Mid-Atlantic region, Boesch said.
"Sea level is going to rise," he said. "What will that mean for Maryland, Delaware, and the Chesapeake and Delaware bays? What are the consequences of climate change to our water resources in this region?"
The climate-change initiative was welcomed by national groups devoted to teaching science.
"By and large, it's not being taught," said Robert Luhn, spokesman for the National Center for Science Education. "If it is being taught, it's certainly not being taught very well. Some teachers report getting pressure not to teach it, from parents, administrators and even from kids."
Some science teachers also are reluctant to teach about climate change because it wasn't taught when they were being trained, said Gerald F. Wheeler, interim executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.
"They definitely need help to come up to speed if we as a society expect to deal with climate change," Wheeler said. "It's a sensitive subject, but it's an extremely important subject."
Not everyone agrees. The Republican-led House of Representatives voted this year to strip the science foundation of funding for its climate-change education program, with critics complaining that tax dollars are funding "propaganda campaigns" on a topic where they contend the facts are in dispute. The Senate refused to concur.
Boesch acknowledged that there are what he called "alternate perspectives" on the science, but he pointed out that there is widespread scientific agreement that the Earth's climate has changed and that the planet is getting warmer.
Even so, he said, the project will try to help teachers broach the subject "in a sensitive way that doesn't tell people what to believe but helps them understand the changes that have occurred and are likely to occur."
Boesch, a marine scientist who has researched coastal ecosystems and pollution, said the educational project appeals to him professionally and personally. He has served on several blue-ribbon scientific committees dealing with climate change, he said, only to have their reports "land with a thud and have nothing happen" because of the political stalemate in Washington over national policy.
The UM official also noted that his two young granddaughters live in North Carolina, where that state's legislators voted this summer to bar any recognition of sea-level rise caused by climate change when considering coastal development proposals.
"It just made clear to me that this is a long process," he said. "We need to do what we can to really help this next generation be prepared and armed to make wise decisions."