Clearing the Air on Climate Education: A Reporter Returns to the Scene of Her Story

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On Nov. 7, our national correspondent Amy Harmon returned to southeastern Ohio to participate in a discussion at Ohio University about teaching science in an era of public mistrust. Joining the conversation were Sami Kahn, assistant professor of science education; Dr. Bernhard Debatin, professor for multimedia policy; James Sutter, a science teacher at Wellston High School; and Katey King, Brogan Speraw and Dalton Teasley, former Wellston High School students.

James Sutter, left, a science teacher at Wellston High School, and a New York Times national correspondent, Amy Harmon, during a discussion about teaching science in an era of public mistrust, at Ohio University.CreditDaniel Rogerson, Ohio University

As a national correspondent, you learn to do stories and move on, no matter how much you might like to stay. It’s the nature of the job: There is always another story waiting to be told.

But recently, my editor asked me and several other correspondents to return, for public forums, to the areas of the country from where we had reported on the nation’s political divide. The idea was that it would be to the benefit of our journalism, and our readers, for us to continue in person the sometimes fraught conversations our articles had helped to stoke.

I cannot say that I embarked on this assignment without some trepidation.

My article focused on a clash between a high school science teacher and his students, in a town in southeastern Ohio coal country, over the broad scientific consensus that human activities are causing dangerous warming to the planet. Readers had voiced strong, and diverging, opinions on both the subject and my treatment of it.

Some were the kind I had hoped for: “Of course it’s exasperating to see such strong scientific evidence rejected,” read a comment about a student named Gwen Beatty. “But Gwen’s sincerity and intelligence, and her real distress, come through clearly, as do the terrible economic pressures on the people of Wellston.”

Others, though, excoriated the students, labeling them “stupid,” among other things. “Folks,” wrote one horrified reader, pushing back after a string of such comments on The Times’s Facebook page, “you’re talking about minors.”

Some readers, especially in southeastern Ohio itself, had objected to the way I’d chosen to weave in information about the region’s socioeconomic troubles, such as the opioid epidemic and the high poverty rate. “What was gained by mentioning a child has to borrow lunch money?” one tweeted. “What did that add to the article?”

I had responded to some of these threads on social media last spring, but the prospect of doing so face to face was more unnerving. And who was to say that this was a conversation anyone in the area wanted to have?

But it seemed I would not get out of it so easily.

This fall, students in the education school at Ohio University in Athens, about 30 miles from Wellston, had been assigned by their professor, Sami Kahn, to read my article. And Dr. Kahn had invited James Sutter, the teacher I profiled, to speak at an event that was soon expanded to include me and some of the Wellston students I interviewed.

The visit, as anticipated, had its tense moments.

In a deep-red region, Athens is a liberal college town, and some community members took issue with what they saw as my kid-glove approach to climate skepticism among young Republicans (even those not yet of voting age).

“Write about how they’re being lied to,” one social science professor instructed me at the reception. “That’s what changes the minds of my students.”

“We’re past debating climate change,” an environmental activist insisted.

The Wellston students spoke openly of feeling betrayed by my mention of drugs, poverty and low enrollment in four-year colleges in an article I had told them would be about climate education.

From left, Ms. Harmon; Dalton Teasley, a senior at Wellston; Brogan Speraw, a former Wellston student and current engineering student at Ohio University’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology; and Katey King, one of Mr. Sutter’s former Wellston students and a current student at Ohio University’s Patton College of Education.CreditDaniel Rogerson, Ohio University

“In our town, we are just kind of trying to survive,” said Katey King, now a freshman at the university. “We have a lot of pride.”

For my part, I was glad we were discussing the often-ignored connection between attitudes toward climate change and economic inequality. And even as I defended my effort to explain to readers why climate change might not be a priority in Wellston, I knew I would be more mindful in the future of how certain facts might be misinterpreted as judgment.

Tense moments aside, much of our conversation focused on Mr. Sutter’s remarkable teaching. Like many of the students I met in Wellston, those on the panel had, in his classroom, come to consider climate change a serious problem, and to recognize human activities as its primary driver.

There may be emotional safety in talking about your story at a physical remove from where it unfolded. But it is far more enlightening — and personally rewarding — to be there.

A few days after I had returned from Athens, I received a direct message on Twitter from Jonathan Caldwell, a senior at Ohio University in St. Clairsville. “I appreciate your work,” he wrote. His education professor, Jacqueline Yahn, had apparently also distributed my article, which he had used for a class presentation on “how we approach ideas like climate change (or any other topic that can be seen as controversial) and what responsibilities I believe we have as teachers.”

At first I thought Mr. Caldwell, who grew up in eastern Ohio and is hoping to be the first in his family to graduate from college, was simply writing to make the connection.

Then, a few days later, came the invitation: “We’re a small campus here at Eastern. But we’re really close here at the campus and I know we would love to learn from you & I think we could share a lot with you as well.”

I haven’t discussed it with my editor yet. But maybe sometime soon I’ll be heading back once again to Ohio.

To watch a video of the Nov. 7 Athens, Ohio, panel discussion, “Teaching, Learning and Reporting About Science in Times of Public Mistrust,” click here. Thanks to all the Ohioans who showed up, especially the crew that came from Wellston. And for those who did not make the drive: The evening ended with a round of applause for your town.