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Communities Take Charge: Climate learning and change-making in the science classroom

Author: Lissy Goralnik, Jenny Dauer, Carly Lettero

GORALNIK, LISSY, et al. “Communities Take Charge: Climate Learning and Change-Making in the Science Classroom.” Science Teacher, vol. 87, no. 1, Aug. 2019, pp. 29–34. EBSCOhost,

Educating learners about the science of climate change can be challenging because of the socio-ecological complexity of the issue (Monroe et al. 2017). Some studies show that increased knowledge about climate change can lead to decreased concern (Kellstedt, Zahran, and Vedlitz 2008) because increased information can overwhelm learners and make them feel powerless to effect change (Aitken, Chapman, and Mc-Clure 2011). As well, researchers argue that without an emphasis on engaged action, climate change learning can contribute to fear or apathy (Ojala 2012). With this in mind, in a review of climate change education research, Monroe et al. (2017, p. 9) found that successful programs share a focus on: 1) "making climate change information personally relevant and meaningful for learners," and/or 2) designing 'activities or educational interventions . . . to engage learners."

Our Communities Take Charge (CTC) education and action program for middle and high school learners integrates science content on carbon, energy conservation, and climate change and provides climate action experiential learning, critical reflection, and community engagement. We developed this project by modifying and integrating two effective programs: one focused on education and one focused on action. First, we use the Human Energy Systems (HES) unit titled Carbon TIME (Transformations of Matter and Energy), which provides empirical evidence on how to best support Student explanations about matter and energy (Parker, Elizabeth, and Anderson 2015). This curriculum has been validated in schools across the country. The full Carbon TIME curriculum and our adaptation of the HES unit are both available for public use (see "On the web").

Second, we paired the adapted HES unit with the Classrooms Take Charge (CTC) web-based platform. Pilot programs of this platform demonstrated increased engagement in climate action for both civic and academic audiences. The site provides students with a list of carbon-reducing actions, from which the students choose three to five to practice for a month (e.g., use a reusable water bottle, reduce shower time; see "On the web" for a full list of curriculum resources). The program tracks learner progress and carbon savings, then provides a final energy savings report at the end of the month. To facilitate the connection between knowledge and action, the science curriculum and CTC activities in our program feature critical reflection and community engagement activities, including an in-school carbon action event and service learning with a local organization. The complete unit (see Figure 1) takes place over four to eight weeks.

Communities Take Charge: curriculum detail

HES unit: Science learning

Given that the majority of greenhouse gas emissions causing global climate change result from the burning of fossil fuels (IPCC 2014), students need to understand the connection between human actions and carbon dioxide emissions. But the concepts of matter and energy are challenging for many learners, particularly in the context of carbon-transforming processes like combustion, photosynthesis, and cellular respiration (Mohan, Chen, and Anderson 2009). Without understanding how energy use is linked to climate change (i.e., fossil fuel combustion and the resulting increase of atmospheric CO2), students cannot describe how their actions can reduce CO2 emissions and mitigate climate change. This HES science learning unit in our curriculum scaffolds student explanations of CO2 released into the atmosphere as a result of transportation, development, food, agricultural, and electrical systems, creating a bridge with the CTC carbon-saving actions, which is mediated by the reflective activities. The unit includes both formative and summative assessments, as well as classroom management strategies and ideas for modifying each lesson for diverse audiences. Overall, the unit (Figure 1) has four learning goals:

  • Relate carbon emissions to energy use.
  • Relate local systems, actions, and choices to global effects and outcomes.
  • Relate changes in carbon pools to the balance of fluxes of carbon (combustion, photosynthesis, cellular respiration) between these pools (appropriate at the high school level or after teaching additional Carbon TIME units).
  • Reflect on personal action for change and engage in service learning.

Activities follow a coach-model-fade sequence to explain the increases in CO2 emissions within the Keeling Curve (Figure 2) and how human behavior could increase CO2 in the atmosphere. Students think about where global carbon exists and consider the idea of carbon "pools" (Activity 2.1). Then they study how processes of photosynthesis and respiration result in interannual variation of CO, concentrations in the atmosphere pool (Activities 2.2 and 2.3) to account for the Keeling Curve's up-and-down pattern. Next, students examine fossil fuels at the atomic molecular level and learn about fossil fuel formation (Activities 2.4 and 2.5) to consider fossil fuels as a potential source for the upward trend of atmospheric CO2. This framing helps students connect global-scale understanding of carbon pools with the atomic-molecular level. To introduce an international perspective, students then examine and compare CO2 emissions data from four different sectors (electricity, infrastructure development, transportation, and diet) in the United States, China, Ethiopia, and France (Lesson 3). This activity provides an opportunity to discuss the social, political, and ethical dimensions of energy use. All science learning objectives address the middle and high school Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013; see connections to the standards on p. 34).

CTC activities: Action

Students are introduced to the web-based CTC platform in HES Activity 1.2 (Figure 1). When students visit the page (see "On the web") modeled after online shopping sites, they answer a few lifestyle questions to generate a list of over 120 energy-saving behaviors (e.g., line-drying clothes, reducing garbage). Students then browse the list of actions, read about the carbon impact and effort required to complete each one (Figure 3), and choose three to five actions to try for a month. Students receive weekly email reminders about their actions; after one month, the site prompts them to report on their experiences. For example, if a student was trying to reduce daily shower time by five minutes, the site will ask how many shorter showers were taken during the month. Based on student responses, the site provides an estimate of energy, water, and CO2 reductions and shows the calculations supporting these results, facilitating a conceptual and quantitative connection between CO2 (matter) and energy.

In HES Lesson 4, students do a jigsaw activity (Activity 4.1) using the CTC calculations, where "expert" groups read a handout and complete a worksheet on one of four sectors: electricity, transportation, buildings, or food. Then an "expert" returns to his or her original "home" group (now composed of an "expert" from each of the four sectors) and reports back on how carbon emissions happen in the sector they learned about. Next, students examine actions from the CTC website and discuss proposed solutions to reduce atmospheric CO2. Students consider the ease or challenge of different carbon-reducing actions. Then they sort each action, like eating vegetarian meals, turning off the lights, and installing solar panels, based on CO2 savings and time and cost requirements. A discussion about trade-offs, resources, and priorities follows, encouraging conceptual and quantitative evaluation of how behaviors result in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

In Activity 4.3, students practice explaining the process of how particular actions result in CO2 emissions. For example, to explain how clothes dry in a dryer, students trace energy sources (e.g., chemical energy in fossil fuels to electricity to heat) and the movement of matter between energy pools (e.g., fossil fuel carbon becomes CO2 at a power plant through burning coal). Groupmates evaluate whether the explanations break or abide by the rules of matter and energy conservation.

Finally, students trace matter and energy quantitatively (Activity 4.4), using the CTC-provided calculations. Students are given an example for calculating CO2 savings (Figure 3). They identify which units represent matter and energy, then practice tracing matter and energy to account for these units. To discover the effects of unplugging electronics, for example, students calculate how many pounds of CO2 are saved when a person unplugs electronics for five days per month. Curriculum support is provided for other actions (e.g., composting food scraps). Instructors can also adapt this activity for any CTC action using the calculations provided.

In Lesson 5, students discuss strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions other than efficiency and behavior change, revisit their own CTC actions to determine their monthlong CO2 savings, and take an assessment on tracing matter and energy at a global scale.

Critical reflection and community engagement: Integration

Regular reflection (Ash and Clayton 2004) is integrated within each HES lesson to facilitate learning from the CTC activities and bridge the science and carbon action content. Reflective activities also guide a community engagement experience to help students connect their own learning and action with broader scale sustainability. Educators can use all the provided reflections or choose the ones that best fit their classroom goals. The reflective journal invites students to:

  • describe expectations and fears related to carbon-reducing actions,
  • reflect on how their individual carbon-reduction actions might be relevant for their immediate community (school, friends, family),
  • practice respectful engagement with communities and reflect on the role of community-building for environmental citizenship,
  • develop educational materials about carbon-saving behaviors to share with the school community,
  • reflect on their carbon-reducing experience, and
  • plan a campus community event to encourage carbon reducing action by a wider audience.

Community engagement with the school encourages students to identify the most salient details from their classroom and online learning and explain them to their peers. This kind of peer-to-peer teaching positively affects student learning (Briggs 2013) and broadens the impact of schoolwide carbon savings. Pilot program classes have created climate science and carbon-saving action presentations for lower school classes; crafted flyers, websites, blogposts, and videos to share with family and friends; developed hallway displays and pamphlets for their school communities; and created experiential science fair and Earth Day displays. All groups track how many community members sign up for the CTC platform to assess their engagement impact. One teacher shared: "I think the community engagement project is incredible. The students really took ownership of the event and had fun putting it together." Many pilot teachers plan to create broader-scale CTC events for beyond-campus audiences in the future.

In addition, the CTC module encourages classroom engagement with a local sustainability organization, providing guided reflective prompts to accompany this service learning activity. Research shows that service learning and participation in community change can inspire empowerment and agency (Claus and Ogden 2004). Students in pilot programs volunteered an average of two to five hours each (up to 12) with sustainability organizations, watershed groups, local farmers, recreation groups, city government, and waste service providers. Teachers wrote that organizing and managing the service projects required a good amount of effort but was also rewarding, both for the organizations and the students.

Feeback and results from the CTC activities

The CTC website tracks both individual carbon-saving impacts, as well as classroom totals and schoolwide carbon reductions, creating an opportunity to understand individual actions in the context of collaborative efforts. Teacher response from a 2015-2016 pilot of the CTC Program with 16 schools (31 classrooms) in Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, and Washington was overwhelmingly positive. Many pilot teachers continue to use the CTC module in their classrooms. One teacher wrote: "Our favorite features were the shopping style. This made it easy to use [and] provided a huge spectrum of accessibility for participation. All ages, skill levels, and socio-economic levels were covered." During the pilot program, 2,550 students pledged to try carbon-reducing actions. Of that group, 747 people (29%) reported on their actions. Based on that reporting, the program encouraged the adoption of 2,627 carbon-reducing actions, or 3.5 actions per person, contributing to an estimated reduction rate of 855 metric tons of CO2 per year. Pilot teacher recommendations for future use include:

  • strategically integrating the curriculum into classroom work,
  • creating incentives for students to participate in the CTC action pledge,
  • adding motivation and context to the CTC action pledges by teaching the HES lessons first.

Pilot research also found that the majority of students demonstrated carbon-cycling learning gains. We analyzed 12 class-rooms' pre- and post-test responses to an HES assessment, which was created using a learning progression approach (Mohan, Chen, and Anderson 2009). Both assessment items required students to trace matter and energy in everyday situations. We found a significant increase in more-sophisticated responses and a significant decrease in less-sophisticated responses for both items, indicating that as a result of instruction, many students had an enhanced capacity to give scientific explanations for how daily actions result in CO2 emissions.


The CTC curriculum provides the tools to make climate change learning personally meaningful and engaging. Our research shows that the CTC module both increases learner knowledge about carbon and climate, and also catalyzes measurable impacts on carbon reduction. By linking these knowledge and action gains in individual and community action, guided by reflection, the CTC module can help learners transcend the feelings of hopelessness often encountered in climate change education and move instead toward empowerment.

To access all the freely available teaching resources described here, see "On the web." To participate in the CTC web-based program, contact the Corvallis Environmental Center staff directly at B


Full Carbon TIME curriculum:

HES unit:

Communities Take Charge:

List of actions on the CTC website:

Curriculum resources on the CTC website:

Connecting to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013)


HS-ESS2 Earth's Systems

HS-ESS3 Earth and Human Activity

HS-LS2 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics

Performance Expectations

  • The chart below makes one set of connections between the instruction outlined in this article and the NGSS. Other valid connections are likely; however, space restrictions prevent us from listing all possibilities.
  • The materials, lessons, and activities outlined in the article are just one step toward reaching the performance expectations listed below.

HS-ESS2-6. Develop a quantitative model to describe the cycling of carbon among the hydrosphere, atmosphere, geosphere, and biosphere.

HS-ESS3-4. Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.

Science and Engineering Practices
Developing and Using Models Students use graphical, quantitative, and simulation models to explain global cycling of carbon due to photosynthesis, cellular respiration, and the burning of fossil fuels.
Use a model to provide mechanistic accounts of phenomena.
Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions Students collect data or are provided with second-hand data they use to develop their understanding of the phenomenon and revise their models.
Design or refine a solution to a complex real-world problem based on scientific knowledge, student-generated sources of evidence, prioritized criteria, and tradeoff considerations.
Disciplinary Core Ideas
ESS2.D: Weather and Climate Student groups discuss and analyze the Keeling Curve and its relationship to climate change.
Changes in the atmosphere due to human activity have increased carbondioxide concentrations and thus affect climate.
ESS3.C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems Students explore how everyday human behaviors are linked to carbon dioxide emissions and quantify reduction of CO[sub 2] based on different behaviors.
Scientists and engineers can make major contributions by developing technologies that produce less pollution and waste and that preclude ecosystem degradation.
ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions Students consider trade-offs of carbon dioxide reduction, cost and ease of implementation for specific personal actions.Additionally, they discuss trade-offs among multiple society'eve' strategies to reduce the impact of human activities on the climate.
When evaluating solutions, it is important to take into account a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, and to consider social, cultural and environmental impacts.
Crosscutting Concepts
Energy and Matter Students trace matter and energy through human energy systems.
The total amount of energy and matter in closed systems is conserved.
Influence of Science, Engineering, and Technology on Society and the Natural World Student compare carbon dioxide emissions between different countries that are related to lifestyle, infrastructure, wealth, and resource availability.
Modern civilization depends on major technological systems Analysis of costs and benefits is a critical aspect of decisions about technology

GRAPH: FIGURE 2 The Keeling Curve, showing how CO2 levels have been steadily increasing since the 1960s.

PHOTO (COLOR): FIGURE 1. An outline of the Human Energy Systems Unit with Communities Take Charge modifications.

PHOTO (COLOR): FIGURE 3 An example of an energy-saving behavior on the Communities Take Charge website, including an explanation of associated energy-saving calculations.

PHOTO (COLOR): Carbon TIME website.



Aitken, C., R. Chapman, and J. McClure. 2011. Climate change, powerlessness and the commons dilemma: Assessing New Zealanders' preparedness to act. Global Environmental Change 21: 752-760.

Ash, S.L., and P.H. Clayton. 2004. The articulated learning: An approach to guided reflection and assessment. Innovative Higher Education 29 (2): 137-154.

Briggs, S. 2013. How peer teaching improves student learning and 10 ways to encourage it. Open Colleges,

Claus, J., and C. Ogden. 2004. Service Learning for Youth Empowerment and Social Change, 3rd ed. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang.

IPCC. 2014. Contribution of working groups I, II, and III to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, eds. R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer. In Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC.

Kellstedt, P.M., S. Zahran, and A. Vedlitz. 2008. Personal efficacy, the information environment, and attitudes toward global warming and climate change in the United States. Risk Analysis 28 (1): 113-126.

Mohan, L., J. Chen, and C.W. Anderson. 2009. Developing a multi-year learning progression for carbon cycling in socio-ecological systems. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 46 (6): 675-698.

Monroe, M.C. et al. 2017. Identifying effective climate change education strategies: A systematic review of the research. Environmental Education Research 1-22.

Ojala, M. 2012. Hope and climate change: The importance of hope for environmental engagement among young people. Environmental Education Research 18 (5): 625-642.

Parker, J.M., X. Elizabeth, and C.W. Anderson. 2015. Learning progressions & climate change. The American Biology Teacher 77 (4): 232-238.


By LISSY GORALNIK; JENNY DAUER and CARLY LETTERO, manages the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word and the Environmental Arts and Humanities Initiative at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.

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DMU Timestamp: February 03, 2020 23:30

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