Justice-Focused Climate Science Education

Expanding Washington state’s climate education initiative through pre-service teacher education


For years, Washington state has been a national leader in addressing the climate crisis, especially through climate science education.

In 2018, the state launched the most ambitious statewide climate science education initiative in the U.S., ClimeTime, a collaboration guided by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and the University of Washington Institute for Science and Math Education.

Since 2018, more than 22,000 educators have participated in the ClimeTime network through professional development provided by the state’s educational service districts, community-based organizations and the University of Washington, which help teachers and their students better understand climate issues that are affecting communities in Washington and around the globe.

“The ClimeTime network has continued to develop their justice-centering work as members of the network have participated in their own equity learning and capacity building within their organizations,” says Philip Bell, executive director the of UW Institute for Science and Math Education. “There are so many stories about how this funded initiative has allowed education systems and organizations to get deeper into a justice-centered framework when it comes to climate change education.”

After seeing the success of the ClimeTime initiative with in-service teachers, Washington state governor Jay Inslee’s office wanted to expand the climate science education initiative further by creating a network for pre-service teacher educators to help every future teacher know how to teach about climate change before they even step into a classroom for the first time. After the UW Institute for Science and Math Education received funding from the state legislature, they initiated another collaboration with OSPI to launch the Climate Teacher Ed Collaborative.

Climate Teacher Ed Collaborative

“The ClimeTime initiative in Washington state, up until last year, was the only initiative that was a systems-wide effort for climate change education that’s justice-focused,” says research scientist for the UW Institute for Science and Math Education and community organizer, Deb Morrison. “We started with climate justice for in-service teachers. And now that effort is being expanded with the Climate Teacher Ed Collaborative work.”
Launched in February of 2022 by the UW Institute for Science and Math Education, the Climate Teacher Ed Collaborative convened teacher education faculty from 16 Washington state universities to collaboratively explore how to embed climate education and climate justice into their programs. “The rhetoric about higher education institutions is that they’re going to be in competition with one another, but that’s not the reality,” says Morrison “Washington state is a small pool, and everybody knows everybody, so they all wanted to work together.”

The collaborative focuses on two specific elements. First, a community centered climate response that asks how communities respond to climate change in ways that fit their own goals, focused specifically on communities that are most impacted by the effects of climate change. Second, youth civic participation that asks how we bring youth into the civic processes of promoting a justice-centered climate response, including how they participate in movements or political engagements both at school and in their communities.

“It’s really powerful to see these teachers take on climate and work together to figure out how to do it well,” says Bell. “It’s the kind of thing you want to see happening more often and the fact that this is a state-funded initiative to promote the implementation of educational standards and they’re out doing anti-racist, anti-colonial climate work…it’s beautiful.”

Unlike previous climate education initiatives, the Climate Teacher Ed Collaborative is not just limited to science education. Teacher educators from all subject areas are invited to learn about, discuss and create resources for climate justice education that can be incorporated into their own teacher preparation programs. Naturally, the collaborative nature of this project affords teacher educators opportunities to talk and form groups that engage in the collaborative design of teacher education across subject areas, higher education institutions and non-profits. Co-design groups that have formed include efforts on elementary instruction, curriculum adaptation for climate justice, professional supports for climate justice teaching and arts pedagogy for climate justice.

Integrating the Arts into Climate Justice Education

Charles “Cap” Peck, professor of teacher education and special education at the University of Washington College of Education, is one of the members of the arts pedagogy for climate justice co-design group within the Climate Teacher Ed Collaborative. He states that the goal of this group is not to integrate climate change material into arts education, but rather to integrate the arts into climate justice education.

“The core idea that this group is involved with is the power of the arts as educational resources,” says Peck. “This group is interested in what the arts can offer as pedological tools for moving people to engage with the challenges around climate change and justice.”

The arts pedagogy for climate justice co-design group is currently designing sets of materials that make art and art experiences more readily available to teacher educators. Members of this group include professionals from the University of Washington, University of Washington – Bothell, Washington State University, IslandWood and other nonprofit organizations. Peck and the co-design group are also working on an online, asynchronous undergraduate course that will be taught this year about the arts and climate justice education.

“So much of the problem of coming to terms with the climate crisis is getting people to engage, to move past their sense of alienation and disempowerment and begin to redeem their sense of the future in ways that motivate people to engage and find paths for forging the future ahead of them,” says Peck. “What role can the arts play in helping people imagine a future that beckons them with some sense of fullness and satisfaction that is also humane and exciting?”

“One power of the arts is that it creates an opening in which people can see the world and themselves in new ways, which is really hard to do in discursive types of teaching or through scientific arguments,” continues Peck. “Those things help people learn the facts, but they don’t necessarily open people up to experiencing themselves and their relationship with the world in new ways, and the arts can do that.”

Developing Climate Learning Resources for Teacher Educators

“Justice-centered climate science education is urgent, complex work and implementing an open education resourcing strategy is paramount to the success of the collaborative,” says Bell. “We need to build capacity for the scaled spread of climate education that disrupts whiteness in climate responses and centers on justice for the most impacted communities.”

Follow the Climate Teacher Education Collaborative on Twitter at @ClimateEdTools.

Climate Teacher Education Collaborative monthly webinars can be accessed for free on YouTube

Teacher educators are invited to monthly webinars where experts from across the country discuss topics around teaching climate education and climate justice. These monthly webinars are free and open to everyone and have engaged in topics such as environmental justice, climate justice pedagogy, climate justice and student action and promoting climate justice through theatrical performance, among others.

“I've been working in the justice space for decades. This work is about building long-term relationships for work in place, in community and in collaboration to foster climate justice,” says Morrison, who was recently named the Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) expert for the Paris Committee on Capacity Building for the United Nations' 27th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27). “We are drawing our speakers for the Climate Teacher Ed Collaborative from these extensive partnerships to highlight their work and provide professional learning opportunities around climate justice.”

Along with hosting webinars and events, the collaborative is developing open education resources to use in teacher education, such as lesson sequences for teacher education courses and educative case studies of community climate responses. Building this infrastructure means that teacher educators won’t have to build everything from scratch and they can learn from what others have developed before them. Webinars, lesson plans and case studies are shared through STEM Teaching Tools’ Climate Learning Resources, a research and development initiative of the UW Institute for Science and Math Education that in its ninth year of operation.

“We were told in the climate education field that you couldn’t possibly do this, you couldn’t possibly change the system on a dime,” says Morrison. “For twenty to thirty years we’ve argued that we need to, and now it’s much more urgent. Then, what happened with COVID-19, the world changed on a dime and climate educators around the world realized you can change the system on a dime.”

While long overdue, climate justice for communities most impacted by climate change represents the future of climate education for both pre-service and in-service educators in Washington state and beyond.