Climate Change in the Classroom Part 2: Chemistry and Physical Science

Climate change lessons and material doesn’t have to be isolated in earth science classes alone. This blog is number two of a four part series about the activities, lessons, and standards that teachers from various subject areas and grade levels are using to teach climate change in their classrooms. Content was collected from teacher papers completed for graduate credit through Hamline University after attending our 13th annual Summer Institute for Climate Change Education. Educators wrote about the importance of teaching climate change and the new ways they will bring climate change to students in earth science, chemistry, language arts, and other classes from grade 3-12.

Lee and Tim offer a discussion and plan on how they will integrate climate change into their high school chemistry classes and 9th-grade physical science class.

Lee J., Academy of Holy Angels, MN

I went into [the Summer Institute] with the goal of gathering knowledge and skills that I could use in my environmental classroom as well as being a better informed citizen in a world with a changing climate. However, after a couple of days at St. John’s, my focus shifted. Instead of wanting to focus on teaching climate in one of my classes that sees less than 25% of the school population for less than three months, I was inspired to expand the reach to my chemistry course, which sees closer to 50% of the school population for an entire school year.

Dimensional Analysis with Atmospheric Data Lesson

Context: Dimensional analysis is an essential chemistry skill and is woven through most units in my chemistry class. This lesson will be designed for a first year non-advanced group of students. Though students have been exposed to this skill in their 9th-grade biology classes as well as middle school general science classes, this lesson will be the first exposure of this skill during their year of chemistry.

This skill is traditionally challenging to many students and few of them take to it quickly (anecdotally < 5% of first year non-advanced students feel comfortable after the first two days of instruction.) However, without dimensional analysis the study of chemistry can only be qualitative, which is insufficient for full understanding and finding success in this class as well as future science classes. This lesson will take place after two days of teaching/guided practice with dimensional analysis and will focus on a specific topic where students historically struggle even more than metric system based dimensional analysis, which is the topic of parts per million/parts per billion (ppm/ppb).

Students will be introduced to the concept of greenhouse gases and the greenhouse effect.

Lesson Outline: They will be introduced to the Mauna Loa Observatory Data, and Charles David Keeling’s data collection starting in 1958. I will then go through the concept/definitions for ppm/ppb and a few sample problems. I will then expose students to data (through a worksheet or the NOAA website) and ask them to do calculations directly with CO2 and other atmospheric gas data. Though not directly related to dimensional analysis, I will have some graph interpretation questions as well that relate to trends in CO2 as well as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The hopeful outcome is that students notice the upward trend of CO2 and the downward trend in CFCs. I will likely have information in the worksheet handout that discusses the global effort to cease making products containing freon, as well as the variety of sources of CO2 and increased global industrialization and hope that students connect these dots.


Tim C., Morris Public Schools, MN

This lesson will be presented when we cover forms of energy in our 9th-grade physical science class. The focus will be on alternative energy and ways to minimize the student’s carbon footprint, as well as how greenhouse gases cause additional heating and heat retention of the Earth’s atmosphere. In addition to calculating our carbon footprint, the students will compare their carbon footprint with the students of our sister city in Germany. One extension that can be done is to include the effects the warming of the atmosphere has on humans as well as plants and animals.

At the end of the 2017–2018 school year, we initiated a partnership with students that live in Saerbeck, Germany. The students of Saerbeck currently do a carbon footprint project, which we are planning on doing here in Morris during the 2018–2019 school year. After both sets of students complete the project, the data will be exchanged with the different groups of students. We are not sure if all the individual data will be shared or just the averages. In some ways it would be good for students to see the range of data. A week or two after the data is shared, the two schools will Skype to discuss their findings and look at ways to lower the carbon footprint.

Students will research what the average American consumes in energy in a year and compare that to how much they consume, and then calculate out for an entire year. Students will also research the sources of energy in the U.S., Minnesota, and Germany. They will also search for the carbon footprint of each type of energy source used in the various areas.

A field trip will be taken to the University of Minnesota Morris to see the biomass-to-fuel project,  the solar panels, and wind turbine that the University uses to provide energy for the campus. The students will be expected to record at least 10 facts that they find interesting during the tour.  Following the tour, students will share their facts on a Google Document.

Check out Climate Generation’s #TeachClimate Network and Book Club for more cli-fi reads! Do you have creative ideas on how to teach climate change? Engage with our Back to School hashtag #teachclimate365 on Twitter at @climategenorg.

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