Challenge Accepted—DO Something

By Jill Grace|February 28, 2019

“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that do.”

~ Steve Jobs

In 2017, I had the very great pleasure of meeting Dr. V. Ram Ramanathan, Distinguished Professor of Climate Sciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (Scripps), following a featured presentation he did in Los Angeles on climate change. We had a brief discussion about the need to support teachers on this front. Before we parted, he paused, looked intently at me, and challenged me to DO something.

That moment made me flash back to how lucky I had been, some years prior, to work closely with Dr. Mike Gunson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on a joint project between the K–12 Alliance and JPL that introduced classroom teachers from across the state to the role of satellite technology in understanding climate change. That experience both deepened my own content knowledge and had a profound impact on my classroom practice.

With the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), for the first time, California educators are responsible for teaching climate science—something most educators did not learn about in their own formal education. It’s no secret that teachers aren’t likely to teach something they feel they don’t understand. It’s also no secret that this topic, in particular, is riddled with misinformation on multiple platforms. As president of the California Science Teachers Association (CSTA), I knew I was in a position to help meet a great need and support educators. Although my wish for them all is to have their own personal Dr. Gunson, I knew this wasn’t possible and pondered if there was another way.

A few months after the interaction with Dr. Ram, CSTA decided to find a way. We threw out a crazy idea: what if we could orchestrate something to support educators in deepening their own understanding of climate science and help produce grade-level resources, designed for the NGSS, and incorporate California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs). Thus, the vision of the 2018 California Science Education Conference Climate Summit (pre-conference day and embedded conference events) began with the goal of enriching the experience and expertise of educators by providing opportunities to strengthen content knowledge and receive support for teaching climate science as envisioned at their grade level.

CSTA needed critical partners for this to happen—enter David Seidel of JPL and Cheryl Peach of Scripps. Not only were they instrumental in recruiting keynote speakers, focus speakers, and scientists for the pre-conference day and the content cadre, but also they held true to a clear storyline that would build basic understandings of the science as well as inspire educators.

Cheryl also worked closely with CSTA to assemble teams of teachers to partner with Scripps scientists who would complete the content cadres. Following the model used by the K–12 Alliance, the content cadres (teams made up of one to two scientists, providing content expertise and one to two teachers, providing instructional expertise) would plan NGSS-designed and EP&Cs-embedded learning sequences at each grade level, field test the learning sequences in the teachers’ classrooms, and present these as short courses at the conference.

Although the primary goal of the cadres was to provide useful resources for classroom teachers and other educators, members of the cadre identified clear benefits for themselves both personally and professionally:

“Typically when I discuss the devastating consequences that climate change illiteracy can have on our lives, communities, and planet, I am preaching to the choir. Participating in the climate summit cadre gave me an avenue to directly combat climate change illiteracy and misconceptions about its causes and effects with a different audience. This type of collaboration between educators and scientists is critical to improve our country’s understanding of climate change and empower all future generations to make choices for the betterment of our planet. I know this fight is worth fighting. I’ve worked on other cadres in the past, but this one felt more meaningful. I loved working with my cadre—amazing primary elementary teacher leaders, and connecting with dedicated California educators at the conference who work tirelessly to be the best educators they can be. I am honored to have been a part of it.”

~ Jenny Hofmeister
Environmental Scientist
California Department of Fish and Wildlife
(former Postdoctoral Researcher at Scripps)

“As a cadre leader, I gained a tremendous amount of knowledge from my two scientists regarding climate change. The scientists made sure to highlight any misconceptions and confirm which data sets and/or graphs that should be used to highlight what is really going on with Arctic Sea Ice melting. Being a part of this summit empowered me as an educator and the experience was life-changing.”

~ Leah Wheeler
6th grade teacher (now Curriculum Coach)
Galt Joint Union Elementary School District

“This collaboration between Tyler and I proved to be an experience that all high school teachers could only dream of having. I was able to learn the content I needed to grow professionally. We were able to develop a storyline that was engaging and relatable to students. We were able to apply real scientific data into the classroom. We were able to connect students to the real world. We were able to encourage them to think about making changes at the local, national, and global scale in relation to their carbon footprint.”

~ Wendy Hagan
Biology and Environmental Science Teacher
Granada Hills Charter High School

High School Living Earth + Earth Space Sciences (ESS) Cadre, Tyler Cyronak and Wendy Hagan begin their initial learning sequence planning.

“Collaborating with Dean Reese, a high school physics and STEM teacher, and Dan Lubin, climate scientist and research physicist from Scripps, in cadre provided a unique opportunity to create an engaging storyline with authentic and current data that integrated Earth and Space Sciences, engineering, and climate literacy into a physics learning sequence. This sequence proved to be not only understandable in content to my 9th grade students, but applicable to their everyday lives. It encouraged them to make a difference in their community and design solutions to positively impact the future of our planet. Watching my students immerse themselves in current climate data and encourage each other to become global citizens was inspiring and reinforced to me the impact of integrating the sciences, providing current data from a practicing scientist, and useful resources to increase climate literacy. Furthermore, this opportunity and experience encouraged me to extend collaborative efforts across the state to create similar integrated lessons that promote the Environmental Principles and Concepts and engage every student with local and global issues.”

~ Melissa Marcucci
Physics Teacher
Ceres High School

Cheryl’s extra vision of bringing on board several post-doctoral scholars to the cadres allowed us a special opportunity to “catch them” early in their career, setting the stage for a mutually beneficial relationship—they provide content support to teachers, and teachers can support scientist by inspiring pedagogical shifts that will hopefully manifest in the scientists’ teaching practice at the university level.

“This experience challenged me to think about my research and teaching in a new light. I was partnered with an excellent teacher in Wendy Hagan, and it was amazing to see someone with such enthusiasm and passion for teaching science at the high school level. I think my favorite part of the Climate Summit was finally presenting at the CSTA conference and seeing how all of our concepts were turned into interesting and engaging classroom activities. For example, we were able to integrate some of my most current research by developing an activity where students analyze cutting edge chemical oceanography data that I am currently working on. In the end, this was a great experience and broadened the way I will think about teaching my own classes in the future.”

~ Tyler Cyronak
Postdoctoral Scholar at Scripps
Marine Biogeochemistry

This impact on scientists is exemplified by a former Scripps postdoctoral researcher, who worked on several cadres with the K–12 Alliance, and was invited back to work with a Climate Summit cadre:

“My experiences working in a cadre with K–12 teachers has enriched my own teaching at the university level. I now think much more carefully about the scaffolding necessary to create a lesson that provides students with the foundational knowledge they will need for the topic at hand. I also refrain from lecturing for entire class periods. I include active learning experiences, many learned and practiced during my time working with a cadre, including working individually, in small groups, and in pairs to complete an activity, answer questions, and interpret data. In addition, I built a conceptual flow to help design a course I am currently teaching, Marine Communities. This past “lecture” I just gave on seagrasses, I also tried to develop a 5E lesson involving student examinations and interpretations of graphs and diagrams of major processes, interactions, and scientific studies in this particular marine community.”

~ Darcy Taniguchi
Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Sciences
California State University, San Marcos
(former Postdoctoral Researcher at Scripps)

The impact is clear on participants as well. When asked what was most useful from the climate summit, one participant commented, “The short courses. The work between the early implementers and the Scripps scientists was amazing! The pedagogy was phenomenal, but the science content itself was so much more advanced and current and relevant. The units are incredibly professional and comprehensive and compelling.”
Overall, we are proud of the impact the climate summit had. The pre-conference event sold out with 106 educators in attendance. Anywhere from 20–1,000 educators participated in one or more of the Climate Summit events throughout the three days of the conference. The feedback has been inspiring.

“Thursday’s climate summit was fantastic. I honestly feel like I could have walked away happy after Thursday, it was that powerful. Sessions on Friday and Saturday were also wonderful.”

“Thank you for bringing amazing session teachers and speakers to share their important knowledge on the most important topic of climate change.”

“Absolutely the most relevant teaching conference I’ve ever attended— thank you!”

“Keynote speakers offered perspectives that motivated me and helped me have more hope and at the same time inspired me to think of ways of teaching the science of climate change.”

“The most useful part of the Climate Summit was being able to hear from actual scientists and their research regarding climate. It’s a huge component in the NGSS standards for middle school, I wanted to hear from the people who are primary sources of information.”

“More of this! I love being able to interact directly with scientists and hear recent, relevant information—especially how climate change is impacting us locally in California.”

“The speakers were amazing. I have the basic understanding and knowledge to share climate change information with my students and colleagues.”

Keegen Gillette, K–5 science teacher from Aspire Public Schools and K–2nd grade cadre, leads a small group discussion during the short course.

Because of these cadres, students across California are now connected to the real work of scientists trying to understand and explain phenomena that relate to our changing climate—a unique opportunity to grow environmental literacy and provide relevant experiences to deepen student scientific understanding. Who knows, we may just inspire the next generation of climate scientists.

“Working with the climate cadre truly proved that even our youngest students can understand climate and what that means to our planet, and that everyone can make a difference.”

~ Katherine Altmann
2nd grade teacher
San Diego Unified School District

“Dr. Cyronak is an awesome scientist! He is able to explore and research all about coral reefs and then surf at the same time. What a life! I hope I can be just like him. Do you think he gets all the girls too?”

~ High School Student
Granada Hills Charter High School

(In case you were also wondering, I checked with Dr. Cyronak. He said he not only got the girl, he married her!)

Students from Rachel Meisner’s chemistry class at Castle Park High School, SUHSD, working on explaining the decline in the West Coast North American oyster population. Here they are conducting an investigation to determine how carbon dioxide can diffuse through air to ocean water and lower pH.

Students from Carolyn Hernandez’s 3rd grade class at Pacific Beach Elementary School, SDUSD, work on explaining how heat, wind, and water affect their school, develop models of natural hazards and wind direction to inform their recommendations to mitigate heat for this particular area of school that will be presented to their school site governance committee.

Work continues as our cadres revise their learning sequences over the next couple months and CSTA begins building a special page on its website to house all of the work from the Climate Summit (all learning sequences, conference presentations, and the forthcoming special edition of the
California Journal of Science Education) and make it all available to the public for free. We will keep you posted when that goes live!

At the closing keynote, Dr. Ram said something that struck a deep chord with me and brought back the purpose of why we are doing the work we do. Despite decades of hard work and their best efforts to communicate to the public that this is a humanitarian issue that is both serious and solvable, Dr. Ram paused and said, “scientists have failed, we need you teachers.” Challenge accepted, Dr. Ram.

Dr. Ram inspiring a packed room of educators at the closing keynote


It took critical friends to make this happen. First and foremost, this was a huge undertaking on behalf of CSTA—a tremendous amount of volunteer hours on behalf of our conference committee and board members and a big lift for our executive director, Jessica Sawko. In addition to all of the office support required, she also dealt with a lot of random things like, “you have to take the turtle out of the logo, we need a foram instead.” We are so lucky to have her in our corner!

Many leaders in the CA NGSS K–8 Early Implementation Initiative volunteered to support the cadres during their planning. Thanks Dave Tupper, Rachael Tarshes, Crystal Howe, and Jenny Chien!

Early Implementer, Jenny Chien, facilitating the High School Chemistry + ESS cadre in their initial planning (oh, and did I mention, she’s an elementary teacher!)

Thanks to CSULB’s Dr. Susan Gomez Zwiep for supporting the scientists in the cadre planning and to her and K–12 Alliance’s Kathy DiRanna for helping with the pre- and post-evaluation.

A shout out to the teams from JPL, Climate Science Alliance, Scripps, Monterey Bay AquariumCA NGSS K–8 Early Implementation Initiative, CREEC Network, and San Diego County Office of Education for sharing resources and activities during the educational roundtable portion of the pre-conference day. This was a highlight for many educators as they could see the application of what they were learning in an educational context.

Educational Roundtables

A deep heartfelt thank you to David Seidel and Cheryl Peach and all of the scientists of JPL and Scripps who rallied and recognized the need to support educators.

Jill Grace, David Seidel, and Cheryl Peach

A major shout-out to the members of the content cadre, who continue to pour their hearts into this project and work long hours—on top of their full-time jobs. Your dedication and passion for this project is inspiring.

To Dr. Ram and Dr. Oreskes, thank you for understanding that although CSTA is small, our educators are mighty and they will inspire the youth that will change the world. I’ve never seen such packed keynote sessions before, or educators moved so deeply. Thank you for your impactful messages.

Dr. Oreskes answering questions following her opening keynote

And to our funders, thanks for believing that a state science teachers association could make a difference for the teachers, scientists, and youth of our state!

Last, but not least, thank you to our entire science education community who came with open hearts and open minds, eager to learn more and make a positive impact in their classrooms affecting the next generation of parents, community members, leaders… and hopefully a bunch of inspired scientists and engineers.

Jill Grace
This article was written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a regional director for the K–12 Alliance at WestEd for San Diego, Orange, and Los Angeles counties. Prior to this, she served as a middle school science teacher. Jill is also president of the California Science Teachers Association, where she is involved in state-level work related to the Next Generation Science Standards. She has a BS in marine biology and an MS in science education from CSU Long Beach.