Difficult But Crucial: Implementing Climate Education in Rural Schools

    By TCI Fellow Riley Stevenson

The first time I can remember discussing climate change in school was my junior year of high school. I was taking Advanced Placement Environmental Science, a class entirely centered around the implications of humans on a changing climate. Where was my climate education before then? Other than my own learning as a climate advocate, it was nowhere to be found. 

“I sought a better answer, a curriculum that could engage students and create young change makers in the same way that climate activist groups were.” 

I grew up in a place not-too-rural for Maine, but quite rural compared to most anywhere else across the country. I loved my growing-up experience––knowing everyone in my community, feeling incredibly safe, having beautiful outdoor places to explore. As I got older, I began to hear whispers of the oncoming climate crisis, and joined groups like Maine Youth for Climate Justice to be part of the movement of engaged youth working to create equitable climate solutions.

Through these spaces, I began to learn about the true root of the climate crisis, its disproportionate impact on low-income and communities of color, and the immense powers that perpetuate this crisis. My informal climate education always had this justice lens as a result of the organizing I did, but when I began to learn about these issues in school, the information proved to be bland and uninteresting compared to the local issues I knew were impacting my community. I sought a better answer, a curriculum that could engage students and create young change makers in the same way that climate activist groups were. 

All of this brings me to now, in my role as a Maine Fellow at TCI. I excitedly began this position expecting  educators and informal educators to respond to Learning Labs enthusiastically, naively thinking I’d be explaining them one week and seeing their names on sign-up sheets the next. 

What I found instead were educators and community members navigating complicated waters and sharing their frustrations about the overworked nature of rural school communities. I felt as though a curtain had been ripped back. I had no idea that rural schools had become such complicated places for implementing this type of education, nor had I considered that maybe the lack of climate education in my schooling was the result of a greater lack of resources. 

For so many students like me, these issues are simply not included in their education, and as much as educators might want to engage them, teachers are increasingly overworked and underpaid, and caught in a politicized maelstrom of varying interests. 

However, it is these rural students who most need and deserve comprehensive climate education. Rural spaces are increasingly impacted by the climate crisis, including communities on the Gulf of Maine, the second-fastest warming body of water in the world. Rather than allow the increasing politicization of these spaces to stymie progress, it is more crucial than ever that the environmental movement supports rural educators in implementing non-partisan, comprehensive climate education that not only educates students about the climate crisis, but also prepares them to pursue local solutions.

TCI’s Learning Labs can help cut through so much of this confusion. Purposefully non-partisan resources, Learning Labs focus on the science behind issues that affect real people, and work to connect students to issues taking place in their own communities. Rather than overwhelm students and educators with huge, alarming scopes of information, Learning Labs are entirely place-based, and meant to empower students to tackle local issues. 

Many of the discussions I’ve had as a TCI Fellow have  helped me understand both the difficulties and importance of implementing climate education in these places, and made me proud to represent an organization creating the resources that are most necessary.

One meeting I held early in my tenure at TCI underscored how necessary this work is, and how important it is that organizations position themselves as partners, working to take things off of teacher’s plates rather than add on. From this conversation, I began to think more about the power of partnerships in supporting teachers and students, and all of the ways that we are stronger together. In the same way that I feel that my community as a whole raised me, it takes a community to create a generation of engaged climate leaders. 

As I have continued in this role, my expectations have changed, from expecting educators to be chomping at the bit for these resources to reaching out to community partners first, checking in on the pulse of their communities, and asking how we can help them. This is the real work of community engagement, and I am honored to be able to do it. 

Riley Stevenson, TCI Fellow

Riley Stevenson is a Maine Fellow at TCI. She grew up in Waldoboro, Maine, and has worked on local and statewide climate initiatives in the spheres of advocacy, activism, and policy change within the state. She is most interested in the social and economic impacts of the climate crisis on Maine’s communities, and in narrowing the gap between those creating environmental policy and those impacted by it. Riley took a gap year after high school, during which time she interned for Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, traveled to Chile for three months, and led sea kayaking trips on the Maine coast. She is now studying at Brown University, and when not in Rhode Island can be found on an outdoor adventure in the woods or waters of Maine.