Stow Educator Crafts Powerful Climate Change Curriculum for K-5 Learners

1 June 2016

Karen MayotteHelping educators bring a wider world to their students is a big reason why we love coming to work every day. Imagine how rewarding when we get the chance to see it in action, as we did when we visited elementary educator Karen Mayotte (at left with her after-school students) this spring. In addition to teaching 2nd grade at the Center School in Stow, MA, Karen runs an after-school Engineering Club where she’s been infusing global themes into the curriculum. According to Karen, our summer institute Teaching for Global Understanding, which she attended last July, inspired her: "I knew then that I had to bring environmental engineering into my club design,” she said. “I renamed the club "Cutting the Carbon" Environmental Engineering, with the ultimate goal of teaching my K-5 students about the rise in carbon levels through the kid-friendly lenses of the engineering design process framework."

Karen enthusiastically shared her experience with us:

Tell us about your experience in last summer's Teaching for Global Understanding.
It was one of the most amazing professional development opportunities of my whole teaching career. I have always enjoyed reading journals and professional publications about global theory and learning, however I never We are the Weather Makershad formal instruction into the scope and sequence of such a vast educational mindset. Within this hybrid course, I was most struck by the day devoted to climate change. After reading We Are the Weather Makers: The History of Climate Change by Tim Flannery, our book group had a chance to delve into the specific scientific research and facts on a global scale. The course instructors shared countless online resources to illustrate and prove the severity of this global climate crisis, such as maps and graphs showing global fossil fuel usage. Most meaningful perhaps was my introduction to the United Nation's Universal Universal DeclarationDeclaration of Human Rights, as I was not previously aware of such a document. This primary source was a perfect segue for teaching the 2nd grade students about climate change. I used the maps and graphs to illustrate the severity of the rise in carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution, and discussed how it is a necessity for us to keep all of the world's citizens safe from air pollution, particularly in developing countries that do not have the necessary resources to fight this carbon struggle.

How did your after-school Engineering Club come about, and what tweaks to the curriculum were you inspired to make?
For three years, I have hosted free after-school science and engineering clubs for my K-5 learners; one for the younger grades K-2 and one for the older grades 3-5. It began after one of my son's was diagnosed with autism, and he was unable to function well in normal, organized after school sports. This type of program gave both regular education and special education students a chance to pursue their love of science in this after-school setting.

For the first year, I focused on a variety of science strands, such as teaching the students about capillary action and surface tension via science experiments. In year two, I brought in engineering standards, having the students create bridges, towers, and other structural engineering designs. However in year three, after Engineering Clubfinishing my Primary Source course, I knew I had to bring environmental engineering into the club design, as my new knowledge of climate change was all that I could think about. I renamed the club "Cutting the Carbon" Environmental Engineering, with the ultimate goal of teaching K-5 students about the rise in carbon levels through the kid-friendly lenses of the engineering design process framework. Knowing that engineers are "problem solvers", the kids (seen at left cleaning plant roots) embraced the club’s focus on climate change, viewing it as a problem on a global scale. They began innovating designs to fix the problem. In the first session, I explained Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Earth Challenge, which awards $25,000,000 to the individuals who are able to curb the atmospheric carbon levels. It was quite the motivator to spark their creative outlet!

How did you involve your students in the process of planning out these climate change projects?
I first had to determine the best method for teaching elementary student learners about climate change, and in particular, the direct role of carbon emissions. Climate change can spark quite the political debate, so I needed to ensure that my lessons were supported with strong scientific backings, and kid-friendly terminology and content. I started each session with a mini-lesson on the chemical element of carbon, regularly scaffolding the students' understanding of this climate phenomenon. Early lessons focused on the carbon cycle, as the students needed to understand the importance (and positive role) of carbon in our atmosphere, before then detailing how the Industrial Revolution and the burning of fossil fuels led to the extreme increase in carbon levels.Engineering Club

Additional demonstrations helped further the students’ overall understanding. For example, I had them experiment with red cabbage juice water as a pH indicator to better understand the concepts of neutral, basic, and acidic aqueous solutions, as that is a big topic in our session on ocean acidification. In the coming years, I plan to add content on climate shifts and extreme weather systems, including current research showing a shift in the jet stream movements on Earth.

(At right, Karen's students transplant fruit and vegetable plants into hydroponic towers.)

Overall, I have made sure to keep the content positive. We end each session with a reflection, as students share their new understandings and ask questions that remain unanswered. This helps me gauge potential misconceptions and ensure they have an accurate understanding of the carbon cycle and related climate change content. 

What have you and your students found most rewarding about these activities?
During an early session on plant science, where the kids learned about soil-based planting, we spoke about the food crisis on our planet and how farms are a crucial component of all societies. Using the Google Public Data Explorer that I learned about in Teaching for Global Understanding, we discussed how our world population spike is proof of the need for additional farms. Then, thanks to very generous funding from the Stow Parent-Teacher Organization (SPTO), I had a chance to go even further with this plant science focus for curbing climate change.

I began researching ideas, and came across hydroponics - a term I was quite unfamiliar with beforehand. After learning extensively about this system of water-based planting, I ordered three hydroponic systems for the school. Six weeks later, the students were adding a clay medium to the systems, while learning about what nutrients to add to water to ensure proper plant growth. A video clip about the Kenyan Climate Innovation Center demonstrated how these systems are ten times more efficient in water usage than the traditional soil-based farming.Hydroponics

Our hydroponics (seen at left) have inspired my colleagues to learn more, and they are now sharing with their own classrooms how these systems can help alleviate the global food crisis and regulate the carbon cycle. I have no doubt that hydroponics will be expanded upon in our school for years to come.

What have your students learned from being involved in these engaging activities?
It brings me tears of happiness to know how much the students have learned from this club. Countless families have thanked me for teaching a club on environmental issues, as climate change issues are of such high interest in this community. My students go home and quiz their families on the "carbon cycle", and they are so proud to stump their family members on the specifics of carbon in the world. Most importantly, the students learned that carbon is not a bad thing, as our bodies and the world around us are composed of this chemical element. Yet they know that the rise in carbon levels due to the burning of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution has offset that regularity, thus the need for new solutions.

It’s exciting to see that the students understand what needs to be done to start "cutting the carbon" on our planet. After learning about direct air capture (DAC) technology, which allows scientists to capture carbon and transfer it back into a liquid form in the aquifer layers of our Earth, they acknowledged their "engineering constraints" (including lack of both a carbon engineering college education and the funds for such a big project) and went about designing just the air filter component of the system. Using cardboard boxes and a variety of materials, the students constructed filters to "catch the carbon", which was glitter blown through a hair dryer. Imagine watching a group of kindergarten girls run around the classroom telling one another how they helped get carbon out of the atmosphere. It was simply amazing!

These students learned that all individuals, no matter what age, can help curb the rise in climate and regulate the carbon cycle on our planet. Simple acts of utilizing renewable resources go a long way, and this needs to be a collective movement for our whole society for generations to come. A video clip from “The Great Ocean Cleanup” about the Dutch inventor Boyan Slat (who as a teenager engineered a prototype to remove trash from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) mesmerized the students. Afterwards, I overheard a first grade girl telling a fellow boy classmate that she was going to win a Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental engineering inventions, and she was going to win it by the age of 15. Comments like those make the long nights of club planning worthwhile!

I can truly say that none of this would have been a reality if it had not been for my introduction to Primary Source, and specifically my coursework in Teaching for Global Understanding. That summer institute transformed my teaching and my life, and I will be forever thankful for what I learned and was able to bring back to my young learners.

Learn more about our popular summer institute Teaching for Global Understanding in the 21st Century, running July 18-22, 2016 and open to all K-12 educators.

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