Changing Science Climate

The intricacies of climate change education at Branham


Aadyant Suresh, Staff Writer

Since the beginning of the year, California has seen 12 significant atmospheric rivers that have delivered 150% to 200% of the normal rainfall. This was good news for the state, which had experienced years of significant drought. 

The historic atmospheric rivers and heavy snowfall in the Bay Area in the past few months have again raised questions about the impacts of climate change and the nature of erratic weather.

Although climate scientists say that weather can naturally vary, climate change has increased the magnitude of more extreme events.

As climate change becomes a fact of daily life, Branham’s science curriculum is evolving to meet the subject’s demands. 


The current curriculum

The primary instruction with climate change for students takes place in their Living Earth, chemistry and physics classes. Each class approaches it in terms of the materials they regularly focus on.

Biology often provides students’ first exposure to the topic in high school, where they learn how climate change has an effect on various species and ecosystems. As a final project, students research an environmental issue and how species react to it.

Chemistry classes in turn focus on the carbon cycle and ocean acidification, building on their earlier learning about chemical equations. Similarly to biology, students last year identified an ocean based organism to research and learn about how they may be threatened by global climate change.

Physics meanwhile, focuses on renewable energy and resources.

Although these classes have their individual approaches to climate change education, they work to help students learn that global climate change is a systemic event that has causes and effects in many different regions.

“It’s hard to pinpoint one thing,” said science teacher Kevin Kalman. “There’s feedback systems and loops, and one thing here can change a drastic amount for the entire world. It’s a systemwide change that’s going to happen and you’re going to see it.”

Classes also emphasize the use of “climate change” versus “global warming,” as this process does not just involve the heating of the planet.

“We think global warming is everything’s warming up, but in reality there’s different things going on in different parts of the world,” science teacher Alex Johnson said. 


AP Environmental Science

In AP Environmental Science, climate change is one of its primary focuses, along with the ozone layer and biodiversity loss. To help students learn these concepts, the class spends the first semester covering Earth’s systems.

“Without having that in-depth understanding of how systems naturally work, climate change doesn’t make sense,” Biology and AP Environmental Science teacher Kori Reynolds said. “Once you understand those big systems and how they actually function, then it’s easier to navigate between what is true and what is not. 

In particular, the class approaches the topic from different perspectives that students can apply in other fields. 

“Students are interested in how these big picture systems may impact them or their careers, whether they’re going into theater, arts, or business, or science,” Reynolds said. “It’s a good class to take because you will be able to apply what we learn here, no matter where you decide to go.”


Challenges of teaching the curriculum

With the complexities of the topic, there are numerous difficulties in building a curriculum for students.

As much of the discussion on climate change shifts in relation to overall changes and patterns, it can be difficult for students to recognize these changes.

“Climate change may take more than a lifetime so (it isn’t easy) to identify,” said science teacher Juan Fernandez-Maculet, who teaches AP Biology and chemistry.

As the subject requires prior knowledge of physics, chemistry and biology concepts, teachers are working to ensure that students understand how multifaceted climate change is. 

“We often have to design a lot more stuff which takes more time,” Kalman said. “And so sometimes that’s part of the challenge, too, is we have to take more time to sit down, work more and do more together. It’s gonna take a couple of years for each of the courses to really hammer out what’s working.”

Moreover, teachers have to adapt with the changing curriculum in elementary and middle schools, where more information on climate change is being given compared to what current students learned. 

“Right now we’re in this transition period where we’re figuring out what people know (and) how much of the basics we have to cover,” Kalman said. 

There’s also a time crunch, as there are other topics and tests to cover.


Positive effects of the curriculum

Aditi Anand is a high school student with the East Side Union High School District and is a hub coordinator for the Silicon Valley branch of the Sunrise Movement, a national climate activist group.

For her, the material being taught at Branham is very valuable in helping students better understand the concepts. 

“There are also a lot of people today who know climate change is a buzzword and they’re aware that it’s a bad thing, but they’re not exactly sure how the science of it works,” Anand said. 

She said that her own understanding of the relationship between organisms and the changing climate increased with a marine biology class while attending Accel Middle College, the district’s equivalent of Middle College. 

“It was very fascinating to actually learn about the first hand effects of climate change and global warming on marine creatures and marine habitats,” Anand said. “I’m able to say the algae red tide blooms are causing fish to die faster, and that’s also directly impacting humans because fishing communities are unable to make their living.”


Looking forward

Although climate change is becoming an increasingly significant part of the science curriculum, teachers say they are open to making an on-level environmental science class.

For Reynolds, the possibility is interesting for a class that would not also have to spend time to prepare for an AP test.

“It would be nice to see an on level environmental science … that is more accessible to more students,” Reynolds said. 

Anand recommends that students learn about new technologies that are being innovated to better green energy.

“Your teachers have degrees in the subjects,” Anand said.“If you have those conversations with them, they can share more about it with you.”