Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Advocates in Evanston and beyond call for K-12 climate education

Illustration by Lillian Ali
Climate education can range from lessons on the greenhouse effect to discussions of climate anxiety.

When Helen von den Steinen, adjunct professor at the Segal Design Institute, first moved to the U.S. in 2016, she was in “complete shock.”

Von den Steinen had left Germany, where she said sustainability has “been part of the DNA since the 60s.”

U.S. sustainability was disappointing in comparison, she said. When she left a long-term research position at Procter & Gamble last June, she decided she wanted to help change that –– starting with education.

“We’re in a climate emergency, and we need to move fast,” von den Steinen said. “But nothing moves fast in politics.”

Von den Steinen co-founded Climate Education for Illinois with the goal of passing a statewide bill embedding climate education into school curriculums, creating a position dedicated to the issue on the Illinois State Board of Education and establishing a funding mechanism for climate education initiatives.

In January, state Rep. Kimberly du Buclet (D-Chicago) introduced a bill to the Illinois state legislature to include climate change in the instruction, study and discussion of conservation. 

“No one bill can solve a global climate challenge,” du Bulcet’s office said in a statement to The Daily. “However, it is a great first step and an attempt to ensure that every child in Illinois knows what is happening to our changing planet and how it affects them.”

While von den Steinen said she and other activists were appreciative of the bill, they were disappointed by the lack of specific details. 

Since 2020, five states have passed legislation establishing statewide policies for climate education, with four providing funding for school resources, pilot programs or state-level offices. New York, home to the country’s largest public school system, is currently considering incorporating climate change into lesson plans.

In 2020, New Jersey added climate change information to seven of its nine educational standards, with math and English integrating the subject last October. Advocates say that wider integration, as well as lessons specific to New Jersey, help make the lessons clear. 

“Climate change isn’t just one big thing; it is a very localized problem, and I think it’s powerful for students to view that,” said Yen-Yen Chiu, director of content creation for SubjectToClimate.

In 2022, SubjectToClimate, which creates environment-focused lesson plans and curricula, helped launch the New Jersey Climate Education Hub, an online portal that is part of the New Jersey Climate Change Education Initiative.

The hub provides free training, curriculum and frequently updated lesson plans for teachers in all disciplines to help them comply with state standards. The lessons tackle complex issues like climate refugees and climate anxiety, but the program also emphasizes the impact students can have in their everyday lives. 

But in Illinois, some aren’t waiting for state-level change. 

Evanston Township High School senior Milo Slevin worked with the ETHS Climate Curriculum Committee in May to pass departmental standards for climate education in classes ranging from ecology chapters in freshman biology to sections on climate justice in Civics. 

“Climate education doesn’t bring us to net zero, but in many ways it’s the most critical part of our efforts,” Slevin said.

Slevin is the hub coordinator of E-Town Sunrise, the Evanston chapter of the youth-led climate group Sunrise Movement. He hopes that the Evanston Township High School District 202 Board of Education will pass an eight-part “Green New Deal,” a policy that would not only make climate education a concrete part of ETHS but also implement a wide range of additional environment-focused policies.

But, no matter where the efforts come from, advocates remain determined on climate education.

“This is only going to grow, whether it be from the ground up, with teachers in a classroom, a school in a district developing these lessons, or from the state level down,” Chiu said. “I guess I’m just hopeful.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the school district Evanston Township High School belongs to. The Daily regrets the error.

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