A Teachers Guide: Climate Change in the Classroom

A Teachers Guide: Climate Change in the Classroom - Happy Earth®


by V. Gennaro

Nowadays, environmental literacy is crucial. As issues like climate change, deforestation and pollution escalate, we need to shape students who have an appreciation for and an understanding of our environment. 

A national poll conducted by NPR/Ipsos found that more than 8 in 10 educators support teaching students about climate change.  Nevertheless, few teachers integrate climate or environmental discussion into the classroom, reasoning that the material does not relate to their subject.  With climate change influencing so much of society’s future, we need engagement across multiple disciplines – both science and social.


So, how can you integrate environmental topics into your curriculum? 

We have some ideas.


1.      DO A LAB

Illustrate the concepts of Greenhouse Gases and Global Warming with this simple experiment.

Courses: Science (Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Engineering, Earth Sciences)

Depending on your subject, you can frame this straightforward experiment in a way that highlights your coursework and use it to seed discussions pertaining to your subject.


Using just a few basic materials, you can design an experiment that demonstrates the effect of greenhouse gases on the planet.  Collectively your class can observe how greenhouse gases influence (1) arctic ice/glaciers & rising waters, (2) land & air temperature and (3) ocean warming. 


Containers (beakers or 2L plastic bottles with the top cut-off), Plastic-wrap, Rubberbands, Thermometers, (1) Ice cubes, (2) Soil, (3) Water

Experimental Set-up:

Ultimately, you are creating two parallel systems – one that mirrors an ecosystem that has atmospheric greenhouse gases and one that does not.  With each experimental iteration (1-3) you will need to create identical environments within two separate containers (beaker/bottle).  Stored in a window or brought outside, students will be able to watch, assess and analyze how greenhouse gases regulate different environmental processes.  Each container should have its own thermometer fastened inside with the numbers visible for recording.

In this model, greenhouse gases are represented by plastic-wrap, which will be secured (with a rubberband) to the top of one of the two identical containers after everything is arranged inside.  Similar to the transparent plastic-wrap in this experiment, greenhouse gases are an unseen combination of particles that radiate and trap heat on Earth’s surface.

Using this basic experimental design, you will be able to study three different globally-relevant scenarios:



1)      Arctic/glaciers & rising waters

a.      ~1 cup (or 250mL) and 6-10 similarly sized ice-cubes added to two separate containers.
b.      Thermometers placed in water and water level marked on the outside of the containers (time point=0).
c.      Plastic-wrap secured on one container.
d.      Containers placed in the sun.
e.      At specific time points, students observe and record how the ice melts, the water rises and the temperature changes.  Marking water levels at discrete time intervals on each container will help visualize and quantify these changes.

 2)      Land & air temperature

a.      ~2 cups (or 500g) of soil and 3 tablespoons (45mL) of water added to two separate containers.
b.      Thermometers are taped onto the inside of the container, not contacting the soil.
c.      Plastic-wrap secured on one container.
d.      Containers placed in the sun.
e.      At specific time points, students observe and record the air temperature within the separate containers.  The moisture of the soil can be examined at the end.

3)      Ocean warming

a.      ~2 cups (or 500mL) of water added to two separate containers.
b.      Thermometers placed in water.
c.      Plastic-wrap secured on one container.
d.      Containers placed in the sun.
e.      At specific time points, students observe and record the water temperature in the two containers.

 Afterward, engage in discussion about how these models mimic world situations. For example, you can review the chemical compounds that comprise Greenhouse Gases, the physics and reflective properties of the particular gases, and the biological consequences of Greenhouse Gases (both positive and negative).



Make Recycling Interactive and Instructional

Courses: Any! (including homeroom)


Create a classroom recycling center with an assigned student making sure materials are recycled properly each week.

At the end of the week, count up the number bottles and cans in your recycle bins and weigh the recycled paper.  A bulletin board can be designated to record and graph recycling efforts over time. 

Want to up the game? Weigh your class trash at the end of each day and calculate your weekly waste.  Add that to the graph and encourage changes in recycling and waste behavior over time.



“I teach in a k/1 special education classroom! We recycle all scrap paper. Most is reused for art projects!”
- @annesnyder13


“Recycle bins – classes go through a lot of paper so recycle bins are used quite a bit”
- @hanna.huynhhh


Take it a step further and introduce a classroom compost and garden.  You can teach students about composting methods and the benefits to the environment, all while feeding it with waste from your class!


“I teach children about the importance of composting and help run our window garden”
- @kimuthy99



Keep it simple - bring these topics to life with real cinematic visuals and discussions with scientists and celebrities.

Courses: Science, Social Studies, History, Geography, English, Language Arts, Mathematics, & more.

Movies are the great equalizer - a necessary lecture break for teachers and a tactical treat for students. With dozens of high-rated movies that highlight environmental issues, it’s never been easier to find a film that ties in your subject or interests.

*BONUS: Consider utilizing your film as a launching point for a project, paper or class discussion.



  • Before the Flood: A star-studded cast (Obama, The Pope, Leonardo DiCaprio) highlights the Paris Agreement and technologies that are combating climate change.

  • True North: Sixteen 11-minute anecdotal stories hosted by ThinkTank’s John Iadarola, revealing reports from remote Arctic locations that ascertain how climate change is affecting local populations and ecosystems.

  • An Inconvenient Truth: Al Gore drives awareness of the climate dilemma; everyone’s heard of it, but have your students seen it?

  • Years of Living Dangerously: Features some of Hollywood’s most influential stars revealing emotional and hard-hitting accounts of the effects of climate change across the planet.

  • 11th Hour: Leonardo DiCaprio co-wrote and narrated this documentary about the challenges posed by climate change where interviews with activists and politicians take center stage.

  • Chasing Ice: A skeptic comes to terms with the reality of climate change through witnessing the arctic ice caps of Greenland, Alaska and Iceland melt with breathtaking time-lapse videos.

  • A Beautiful Planet: Narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, this NASA and IMAX project showcases the view of earth from the perspective of those on board the international space station.

  • When a Tree Falls, is it Deforestation?: Discusses how the world is losing tree coverage at an alarming rate and the result on biodiversity, the climate and indigenous communities.



Benefit from multi-dimensional classroom discussion when your assigned reading features climate change.

Courses: English, Literature, Language Arts, History

Assign a book with which your students can connect. Stories and accounts that reflect real-world issues and current global topics.



  • Six Degrees: Reviews the real and tangible effects of our planet’s warming – degree by degree – from the loss of coral reefs and mountain glaciers all the way to the elimination of most life.

  • The Great Derangement: Prominent novelist Amitav Ghosh interrogates our seeming inability to fully grasp or reckon with the scope of climate change, looking specifically at the dearth of examinations of its repercussions in literary fiction.

  • The Sixth Extinction – an Unnatural History: In its long, long history, our planet has experienced five periods of mass extinction, each of which dramatically decreased the diversity of life. Elizabeth Kolbert contemplates the idea of a sixth extinction — the result of climate change — and the ways in which human beings are responsible for changing life on earth in a way no other species has.

  • The Overstory: Spanning centuries and continents, this account follows a group of seeming strangers — a scientist, an artist, a Vietnam War vet, among others — who’ve each been deeply affected by a tree at some point in their life, and who are drawn eventually to the same place, a final stand for the last acres of virgin forest in the world.



Encourage and incentivize your students to engage in science or environmentalism at home.

Courses: Any!

Harness Social Media:

#trashtag: photos of before-and-after a garbage clean-up

#plogging: picking up trash while jogging


“Students participate in #trashbagchallenge for extra credit”
- @mikemaring



Research Projects, Problem Sets, Multimedia Presentations, Speeches, Debates, 3-min Talks, Papers & more

Courses: Any! English, History, Social Studies, Science, Political Science, Global Studies, Mathematics, Science, Health, Foreign Language, and more


Some of our favorite topics: (1) Causes of Climate Change, (2) Global Climate Policy, (3) History of Plastics, (4) Recycling Then & Now, (5) Minimalism Movement, (6) Greenhouse Gas Contributors, (7) Greenhouse Gases and Survival, (8) Deforestation, (9) Wildfires, (10) Air pollution, (11) Agriculture & the Environment, (12) Algae Blooms, (13) Water contamination, (14) Susceptible Regions to Climate Change, (15) Microplastics, (16) Renewable Energy, (17) Glacial Melt, (18) Composting, (19) Fast Fashion, (20) Benefit of Organic Materials


 “Incorporating a small bit into every lesson, whether it’s raising awareness or simply discussing”
- @alex_ed.adme


History, Social Studies, and Global Studies: Discuss Greenhouse Gas emissions and the relation to industrialization - both past and present.

Mathematics: Consider structuring your math problems to include environmental topics and statistics. Here’s a resource to help.


“Project based learning! Apply mathematical concepts to environmental subjects!”
- @joelles413


Foreign Language: Have students research and prepare a short talk/assignment on how the environment (local energy sources, funding outlets, environmental advocacy groups, climate change effects, deforestation, etc.) plays a role in a city, country or community related to the language taught.

Health: The environment greatly impacts human health. Consider framing a class project around how different environmental factors can influence disease and survival. For example: microplastics, pollution, fossil fuels, algae blooms, water contamination, wildfires, ocean acidification, greenhouse gases, etc.

Political Science: Environmental policy is a rapidly growing field - have students compare how different countries regulate toxic environmental practices and what the global summits are enacting.

Art: Try to craft a project around sustainability and/or repurposing waste.



Opt for a field trip or service project that emphasizes the environment.

Visit an organic farm to learn about farming practices and the advantage of organic practices.  Spend a day learning how to compost.  Involve the class in a trail or water clean-up.  Get creative, and get involved!


“Field trips to organic farms, river cleanups, hiking, & national parks for inspiring students!”
- @mrs.meg.edwards


“I am a special education teacher and every morning we go outside and pick up trash around the campus!”
– Amanda Boyle




As a teacher, lead by example - choose sustainable.

  • Save A Few Trees: Encourage your school to purchase paper products made from post-consumer waste.  Go the extra mile and choose digital over paper when possible!


“I do projects online instead of on paper”
- @llybrown


“Using sprouts pencils”
- @_daisy.chains 


  • Petroleum Free Crayons Most conventional crayons contain petroleum. There are many alternatives on the market made from soy, vegetable wax, and beeswax.

  • Use Refillable Dry Erase Markers Purchase refillable dry erase markers to reduce the amount of plastic waste you send to the landfill.

  • Clean Green Making eco-friendly cleaners can be a fun science project to do with your students at the start of the year. Many cleaning supplies contain harsh chemicals. Create environmentally friendly alternatives by using common household items such as vinegar and baking soda.

  • Acid-Free Glue Sticks Acid-free glue sticks create fewer messes than liquid glue and are better for the environment.


Additional Resources