Letting the (Hot) Air Out of Climate Change Misinformation

UMD Researchers Partner with Teachers to Develop Kids’ Critical and Scientific Thinking Skills
A child draws a picture of the Earth at school.

Demonstrably false online claims about climate change are as common as melting glaciers.

Climate change can’t be real—it’s cold out today!

Variation in the sun’s output is driving climate change.

The jury’s out: Not even scientists can agree that humans are causing climate change.

So how can we—and young people in particular—separate credible, evidence-based information from statements (like those above) that are biased, intentionally misleading or just plain wrong?

Funded by the National Science Foundation, University of Maryland researchers are partnering with teachers in three states to answer that question, by developing classroom materials that help students cultivate skills—including the ability to evaluate evidence and sources, make reasoned claims and collaborate respectfully—that are key to strengthening democracy and finding solutions to issues like the climate crisis.

“We hope to help students become better informed citizens and give them tools they can use to engage in critical and scientific thinking,” said Doug Lombardi, associate professor in the College of Education. “Our ultimate aim is to help people listen and work together and be more productive in solving local and global problems.”

Lombardi and Sarah McGrew, an assistant professor in the College of Education, are leading a team of five master teachers from Georgia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to create materials for middle and high schools. They will test the new materials in classrooms starting next school year, and over the next two years, will recruit additional pairs of master teachers, with science teachers partnering with colleagues who teach social studies or English language arts. 

This work represents a third phase in the $5.7 million project, which launched 11 years ago under Lombardi’s leadership and until recently had focused just on science classrooms. The team hopes the new interdisciplinary direction will deepen students’ understanding of Earth’s climate as well as climate change issues. Social studies classrooms in particular are excellent places to discuss the social and political implications of climate change and possible solutions, McGrew said.

The materials will train students to use two different strategies. The first helps students think like scientists, evaluating competing claims about climate change data by mapping out how well scientific evidence supports each claim. The second strategy teaches students how to assess sources the way professional fact-checkers do. Using one of the strengths of the internet—its abundance of information—the students consult other websites to quickly check the source’s motivations, credibility and potential conflicts of interest. 

“Students have absolutely 100% gravitated toward these materials,” said Missy Holzer, a former high school Earth, space and environmental science teacher from New Jersey, who has served as lead master teacher on the project since its inception. “They jump right in, they’re engaged and they’re very interested in the topic.” 

The UMD faculty and master teachers host webinars and annual summer professional development institutes for teachers to help them use the materials and guide classroom discussions effectively and with confidence. Materials and professional development resources are also available on the project website, and the team will add more materials as they’re finalized.

So far, the team has observed about 500 students interacting with the materials. Among their findings, they’ve discovered that when students listen to each others’ perspectives and work together collaboratively to reach conclusions, their scientific thinking improves and their arguments and evaluations strengthen. 

“We need to have legitimate debates in society about how we’re going to tackle problems created by climate change, sea level rise and extreme weather,” said McGrew. “But those arguments need to be rooted in accurate claims, evidence and credible sources. We need to not waste time having arguments about whether climate change is caused by humans so we can have time and energy to invest in having important arguments about what to do about climate change based on our values and priorities.”