Adapting Curriculum to Inspire Climate Action

Announcing a New Approach to Climate Change Study

In the early months of the pandemic, as most people stayed close to home, their cars underused, canceling flights, and unable to enjoy even nearby forms of recreation, there were signs of planetary healing. Cleaner air and water, wildlife reappearing, and green shoots popping up in unexpected places were stark reminders of the impact of humans on our planet. 

Exploring this big topic is just one example of mission-driven learning at Friends’ Central. For the last few years, in response to significant student and teacher interest, the School has offered individual classes, across departments, addressing climate change and biodiversity. These are courses that help us educate students who will live our vision – applying their courage and intellect to issues and doing their part to peacefully transform the world. This ambition cannot be realized without a deep understanding of the world’s most pressing issues.  

In recognition of the critical nature of this course of study and the intense and scholarly interest of teachers and students in pursuing it, Upper School science teacher John Gruber is launching a special division within the science department, Biodiversity and Ecological Monitoring. The aim is to focus on the impacts climate change and land-use patterns are having on all of life on earth. Beginning with the threat to biodiversity, topics will include habitat loss; pollution-related chemical changes in air, soil, and water; pesticides and agricultural runoff; and uncontrolled non-native species. 

We will go further at Friends’ Central by taking these ideas and concepts from the abstract to the concrete – understanding both the underlying science and the immediate and real-world implications in our own region. 

Program design is underway and includes a review of the strong existing foundation at Friends’ Central in science teaching and research, with a consideration of the curriculum in new or existing classes, extracurricular opportunities, service work, and independent research alongside new summer programming. In time, an annual conference or scientific meeting is envisioned that could bring scientists and students together to share research findings and promote scientific communication. 

The program aims to include field work – ensuring direct, hands-on experiences – and the possibility of local and global partnerships with research centers for conservation biology as well as organizations focusing on this work and related policy.

As this new program takes shape, Upper School teachers Monty Ogden, Anna Schall, and John Gruber are already offering topically relevant classes.

Two years ago, Monty Ogden, an Upper School literature teacher, created a popular seminar class called Everything Change: Love in the Anthropocene. The course begins with a consideration of Margaret Atwood’s essay, “It’s not Climate Change -– It’s Everything Change.” Atwood establishes climate change as a crisis that stretches far beyond the boundaries of weather, touching all aspects and forms of life. Many scientists use the term anthropocene for our geologic era – a recognition of the scale of influence humans have had on earth. Ogden’s course is interdisciplinary in nature. Its purpose is to challenge students and teachers alike to engage courageously with climate change by considering its artistic, social, and spiritual implications. In keeping with Friends tradition, the class uses guiding queries including: What is nature? How does our conception of nature shape our understanding of stewardship? What is the relationship between social justice and the environment? What is the role of storytelling and communication in addressing climate change? How does scarcity impact our ability to love? Perhaps most importantly, students are also asked to consider what  it means to come of age in a world with climate change. Students read novels, short stories, essays, and other forms of media. 

“At Friends’ Central, students are encouraged from a young age to think of themselves in relation to the world. Using humanities to address critical topics like climate change gives students an important lens to refine their thinking and to recognize the urgency in a different way.”

Bill Kennedy, Interim Upper School Principal

“At Friends’ Central, students are encouraged from a young age to think of themselves in relation to the world. Using humanities to address critical topics like climate change gives students an important lens to refine their thinking and to recognize the urgency in a different way,” said Interim Upper School Principal Bill Kennedy.

Anna Schall Teaching

Within our science department, Anna Schall currently offers a spring elective titled Atmospheric Science and Climate Change that explores the sources of the individual atmospheric chemical constituents that are known to be the greenhouse gases – the ways they differ in their greenhouse warming potential and subsequent climate change impact that they will likely impose on global communities. The class is, said Schall, “designed to steep students both in the scientific principles that underlie modern climate science and methods of communicating about climate change. We are responsible for empowering young people with the understanding of what is happening and how they can affect change in their communities. Students dive into the local impacts of climate change in various regions and explore how issues of access and privilege affect the impacts on different populations. They also walk away with the understanding that addressing climate change requires implementing a mosaic of solutions now, not the hope for single-technological creation in the future.”

John Gruber’s Advanced Biodiversity semester course, now running for several years, focuses on the role of ecological studies, evolutionary biology, and molecular phylogenetics in understanding the diversity of life on Earth. Central questions addressed in Gruber’s hands-on course include definitions of biodiversity and ways to measure it, how scientists estimate species richness in different habitats, and how conservation biologists work to address threats to biodiversity. The course draws from a body of knowledge that includes scientific articles, recorded interviews with scientists, and video footage of biodiversity hot spots. There is a lab component involving molecular techniques in gene sequencing that are used to study relationships among species or look for unrecognized cryptic species, building on a 10-year research program in Gruber’s lab.  

Building on the many curricular and extracurricular options already in place that explore this all-too-relevant topic, the new Biodiversity and Ecological Monitoring division represents an important step forward for Friends’ Central in our innovative and hands-on approach to education. We look forward to watching the progress of this new initiative, knowing it will not only significantly enrich our own community but that it also has the potential to impact the future, as our students graduate into the world equipped with a deeper and richer understanding of climate change and the impact of humans on our planet.

Middle School in Action

In all three divisions, examples abound of Friends’ Central students already engaged in hands-on efforts to effect change. In Middle School, students and faculty spend two hours each Wednesday engaged in a program of service. Faculty members serve as advisors, organizers, and participants. Students serve as leaders and participants where their understanding of the world and human behavior is further shaped by exploring new contexts. This work includes neighboring efforts such as cleaning the Indian Creek watershed or going as far as the nation’s capital to lobby Congress on climate change. “We ask students to visualize problems and how they might design solutions,” said Alexa Quinn, Middle School Principal. “It’s about being able to live our mission and vision as a school and make positive change.” As an example, Middle School students, grades 6-8, discovered a bridge washed away in Morris Park, so they designed, built, and installed a temporary, flood-proof bridge and then worked with city officials to find and fund a more permanent solution. Students also removed hundreds, if not thousands, of invasive plants and planted native plants into the space.

Call to Action, a Middle School service group, chose climate change as one of their three causes. Together they worked on websites, informative games, social media content, and presentations to educate the student body. During a Community Block in April, students from the climate action group presented their research on climate change and discussed methods to help reverse climate change. 

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