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'Miseducation': Journalist Katie Worth on climate education and corporate influences

(Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
(Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

What are kids learning about climate change in schools?

Journalist Katie Worth pored over curriculum and visited classrooms across the country and found that students’ climate education was often being hindered by corporate and political influences.

“We would like to think that schools are kind of some ideologically neutral place where kids just learn the facts about the world,” Worth says. “And that’s just not true.”

Today, On Point: Corporate influence and climate change, in the classroom.

Guests

Katie Worth, reporter covering science, politics and their intersections. Author of “Miseducation: How Climate Change is Taught in America.” (@katieworth)

Kristen Del Real, science teacher at Chico Junior High School in Chico, California.

Deb Morrison, learning scientist working in areas of climate and anti-oppression design based research at the University of Washington. (@educatordeb)

Book Excerpt

Excerpted from Miseducation: How Climate Change is Taught in America by Katie Worth with permission from Columbia Global Reports.

Transcript: Highlights from the show’s open

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: What do schools teach K-12 students about climate change? In some classrooms, kids might hear a presentation like this:

PAIGE MILLER [Tape]: If it weren’t for fossil fuels, we wouldn’t have had the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution was when we created machines to do the work that humans were having to do …

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is Paige Miller. She runs a program called Arkansas Energy Rocks, and she spoke to seventh graders in an Arkansas classroom a couple of years ago. Her presentation about fossil fuels included videos:

Arkansas Energy Rocks video [Tape]: Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a decades-old technology that unlocks oil and natural gas from deep shale formation.

CHAKRABARTI: Now fossil fuel extraction is a significant business in Arkansas. Beginning in 2007, the amount of natural gas extracted from Fayetteville Shale soared. And by 2014, Arkansas was the eighth largest state producer of natural gas in the country. In her presentation to the seventh graders page, Miller puts heavy emphasis on petroleum products.

MILLER [Tape]: If you came here in a car or a bus with gasoline, jet fuel, rocket fuel, that is the biggest use of crude oil. The second biggest use is asphalt. The black stuff that streets are made of. The third biggest use is in plastics and rubber. So all of these things and a thousand more things that happen all the time are made using petroleum products and they haven’t found a substitute for that.

CHAKRABARTI: Miller’s group, Arkansas Energy Rocks is a program funded by the Arkansas Energy Education Foundation. That’s a nonprofit created to quote ‘fund public education and outreach activities.’ They provide speakers for classrooms, curriculum and lessons for grades K-12 and free summer workshops for teachers.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, that foundation is funded by the Arkansas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association. The group calls itself quote ‘the voice of the state’s oil and natural gas community.’ As such, here’s how Paige Miller talked to the seventh graders about clean energy:

MILLER [Tape]: Another thing with solar, if there is a tornado what happens to the solar? In Arkansas we have tornadoes. … Then, you know, somebody’s got a problem. A lot of them don’t like hydropower. They say that we shouldn’t be damming up bodies of water.

CHAKRABARTI: Miller’s overall message to the students ready-access to energy specifically from fossil fuels is a matter of life and death.

MILLER [Tape]: If you don’t have electricity you probably don’t have clean water every day, you may have it some days. If you don’t have electricity and you hurt yourself really badly, you have a bad accident, you may not be able to get to a hospital that has electricity in time to save your life. It can literally be a life and death issue.  

Interview Highlights: Katie Worth reflects on climate change education in Arkansas schools

The recording of an Arkansas Energy Rocks presentation to a seventh grade classroom came to us from journalist Katie Worth. She spent years reporting on climate change and policy and education, and has just published a new book titled “Miseducation: How Climate Change Is Taught in America.” 

You were in that classroom where Paige Miller gave her presentation. Can you tell us a little bit more about what she said, and what you saw?

“I was not expecting that. I was doing some reporting in Arkansas, and I was sitting in a science class. In a standard middle school in Arkansas. And in walks Paige Miller. And you know, she had this whole PowerPoint presentation, as you heard, and some of it was legit information about like, here’s where you can find the oil and gas in our state, these are the jobs you can get in our state with oil and gas.

“And you know, like this is the geology, etc. But then when she, as you heard, when she got to talking about alternative fuels, she really downplayed the role, the problems that come with using fossil fuels. And also at one point gave the inaccurate information that I think she said that if America stopped using fossil fuels tomorrow, it would make basically no difference to the climate. Which is not true.”

And did the students or teacher know where Paige was from?

“The teacher must have. But she was quite deferential to the programmer, to the person that was speaking in her class. And so were the kids. They were very respectful and they had no further questions. And my feeling is that if this presentation were part of, you know, if the next day they were getting someone from the solar company or the Sierra Club or something it … could have potentially been part of like a balanced education on this issue. But that’s not the case. The kids probably ended that year with this very positive perspective and very partial perspective on the fossil fuel industry.”

It’s not uncommon for professionals to be welcomed into a classroom to talk about the industry they work in, etc. So what makes this more of a concern that led you down the road of writing an entire book about how climate change is taught in schools?

“I don’t think anyone is probably arguing that we shouldn’t have any private business in schools. Like computers are donated through Apple. There’s all kinds of ways that the private industry is inside classrooms. And extracting them entirely would require a major overhaul. But when kids are just getting a very unadulterated, just kind of messages straight from the horse’s mouth with no questioning, no deepening, no kind of broader perspective.

“Then they are walking out of there with a pretty distorted perspective of the future of their reality, you know? And no real sense of what they may face. And so the teachers, the climate educators that I talked to, really felt that we owe kids information about climate change. Because they’ve been born into this century that will be defined by the issue. And they need information about it.”

I was looking more closely at the offerings that Arkansas Energy Rocks has for schools. And again, it’s backed by an industry association in Arkansas, it’s funded by oil and gas producers in Arkansas. But they offer, as I mentioned earlier, curriculum for students. So it’s not just presentations, it’s possible curricula or even teacher training. How widespread is this?

“I will not read you the list of states in which these programs exist, because it’s a long list. I’m looking at it right now, and it’s at least 25 states, and that’s not an exhaustive search. So these things are pretty broad. They’re all over the place, and some of them are more organized than others. That one, as you see, is very organized. Another one that is probably the best organized in the country is in Oklahoma.

“There’s what’s called a privatized state agency called the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board. And it’s funded not by the state, even though it’s a state agency, it’s funded by a voluntary tax on the fossil fuel industry in that state. Which the companies happily pay. And then they produce millions of dollars of educational materials for the kids in that state.

“And so that means there’s everything from teacher trainings — teachers can go to these professional development seminars put on by the fossil fuel industry, get some curricula out of it, some lesson plans and walk away with 300 or more dollars worth of science lab equipment. So they’re motivated to do it. And they walk away also with the messages of the fossil fuel industry in their repertoire.”

How young does this sort of corporate-backed curriculum come into play?

“The Oklahoma Energy Resources Board that I was just talking about, they have a series of storybooks for little kids that are titled things like Petro Pete’s bad dream. And in that story, Petro Pete is this little boy. And one day he wakes up and he can’t find his toothbrush. And he walked outside and his bike doesn’t have tires on them. And he goes to school and everything is warm, there’s no refrigerator.

“So finally, he discovers like, Oh, no, what’s happening is that I’m missing all of my petroleum products today. And then fortunately, he wakes up, and it’s just all been a bad dream. And he says, Oh, not having petroleum products is a nightmare. And this book  is probably sitting in every single school in Oklahoma. And it’s for kids, five, six, seven. And there’s a whole series of them.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.