Teaching Resilience in the Face of Climate Change

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Damariya Carlisle, age 9, jumped as an instructor hauled a crab pot onto the steel deck of the barge docked on the Elizabeth River, a Chesapeake tributary in Norfolk, Va.

She marveled at the Atlantic blue crabs’ claws but worried they might pinch her. The visit was part of a fourth-grade class trip in October.

“They get to see and feel real crabs,” said Janet Goldbach Ehmer, an educator with the Elizabeth River Project who pulled the trap from the water. “It helps to create a personal connection and investment in the river.”

The Elizabeth River Project received about $500,000 for youth resiliency education as part of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant program to encourage children’s resilience when faced with climate-related disasters. The grants are intended to teach young people and adults to better respond to threats like sea-level rise, severe storms, flooding, drought and extreme heat.

A main focus of the grants is to encourage students to answer: “What can I do to make myself” — as well as my family and my community — “more resilient?,” said Sarah Schoedinger, a senior program manager in NOAA’s education office. “How do we rebound to something” that might leave us in a position that is “better than before?”

[Here’s information on how to apply for a grant.]

The Elizabeth River Project welcomes up to 200 students a day on field trips to its 120- by 32-foot learning barge. It enlists the Atlantic blue crab as a means to teach students in the area about increased flooding and sea-level rise, nudging students toward actions they can take to reduce climate impacts.

“You don’t have to grow up to do these actions,” Ms. Goldbach Ehmer tells students. “You can start these actions today.”

After attending the program, Damariya vowed to turn off lights and computers more often.

Since 2015, NOAA’s Environmental Literacy Program has awarded nearly $10 million to 22 resiliency programs across the country, in both coastal and inland states.

The programs provide education and projects include building rain barrels, planting trees, hosting resiliency expos, collecting environmental data and interviewing community members about extreme weather events. The approach is intended to help stave off the paralysis or anxiety that may occur when confronted with climate data that may feel overwhelming or distressing.

“There is a mental health component to it,” Ms. Schoedinger said. “It’s about introducing the vulnerability and threat in age-appropriate ways and then focusing on solutions.”

Robin Dunbar, Elizabeth River’s deputy director of education, said, “Our whole message has not been scary” all “gloom and doom.” Though she added, “I’m not trying to just push cupcakes and unicorns. We do include real science for all ages.”


Chance Fleetwood gets splashed while testing water salinity on the Learning Barge.Credit…Parker Michels-Boyce for The New York Times

Damariya Carlisle looks for pieces of colored seaglass to make a mosaic of an Atlantic blue crab.Credit…Parker Michels-Boyce for The New York Times

Several of the programs aim to empower students to take part in community resiliency planning.

“Sometimes, when talking about big environmental issues,” Ms. Dunbar said, “there’s this idea: We need the adults to figure this out. I always come in and say: ‘Let the kids have a part in this.’”

Over the summer, middle-school boys in a hazard resiliency program in Gunnison, Colo., that caters to rural schools hashed out how to protect their small town at the base of the Rocky Mountains from an approaching wildfire as part of a board game that incorporates hazard survival strategies.

“The foothills closest to your community have been burning for several days and your community has been blanketed with smoke,” read one of the game’s emergency updates.

The game, developed by the Boulder-based Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, is intended to prime students to help if a real flood, drought or fire threatens their communities. The institute received about $200,000 for the project, which is estimated to reach 600 students across Colorado.

A teacher coached the boys competing against other students through several hypothetical challenges: How do you reach people if a cell tower fails? What happens if a major road is blocked by fire? How do you organize evacuations?

“We tell them, ‘there are things we need you to do that we know that you can do,’” said Erin Leckey, the game’s creator and a scientist. “When kids are empowered, that lifts up whole communities.”

Many of the programs target underserved communities.

“For youth and their families who live in underserved communities, this is not an abstract issue,” said Ethan Lowenstein, director of the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition at Eastern Michigan University. Climate change can affect young people in ways that aren’t immediately obvious, Dr. Lowenstein said. For example, if sports fields flood, students miss practices and games, which may affect their ability to get scholarships.

The coalition is a partner in a program called Climate Resilience From the Youth Up, which brings together high school students, educators, scientists and community members in Detroit and southeast Michigan.

Another partner, EcoWorks, a nonprofit in Detroit that focuses on sustainability, supported science students at Communications and Media Arts High School in hosting a climate change forum in May.

This fall, the students surveyed how homes near their school would hold up in extreme weather, assessing the homes’ foundations and roofs, including the placement of gutters.

They showed residents how to better prepare for extreme weather by insulating their homes and cleaning their gutters. Eventually, they hope to secure funding and materials to help owners make their homes more durable, said De’Angelo Sanders, a 15-year-old sophomore.

“I really like this type of experiment, because I get to interact with my environment. It’s pretty cool, you know?” De’Angelo said. “Someone has to step up.”

Grant recipients hope student enthusiasm will spur action in neighboring communities. Watershed Management Group, an environmental nonprofit in Tucson, engages students to design and build rain gardens using native plants and trees, diverting storm water runoff from school buildings to water the gardens.

Students learn about extreme weather patterns and how rain gardens mitigate extreme heat and flooding. They calculate water flows and choose materials. Students and volunteers gather, typically on a Saturday, to build the gardens. School principals often order pizza.

On a recent morning, Riley Fletcher, age 13, checked temperatures throughout the rain garden that stretches along a side of Drachman Montessori K-8 Magnet School in Tucson.

She admired the long strip of desert willows, grasses and flowering plants that have flourished since the garden was built in 2018. Her class continues to make improvements to and monitor the garden, which soaks up an estimated 15,000 gallons of rainwater a year.

“When I first came to the school, it was dead dirt,” said Riley, an eighth grader. “Nature can really be beautiful and not only look that way, but it also helps the world.”

The programs seem to have the most impact when participants see a direct connection to their own lives.

An initial evaluation of visitors to the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond found that many guests had limited awareness about how climate change might be impacting their communities. “Guests weren’t seeing local issues of extreme heat and flooding as connected to climate change,” said Jeremy Hoffman, the museum’s chief scientist. “We wanted to connect the dots.”

With its three-year NOAA grant, the museum hosted an array of youth and adult resiliency programming that enlisted the help of local experts and highlighted Richmond-specific climate data, along with personal resilience strategies and stories, to show guests how climate change already impacted their lives. They offered build-your-own-rain-barrel workshops to show how the implements could help to control water runoff and reduce sewage spills from Richmond’s overloaded infrastructure during heavy rains, Dr. Hoffman said. The free workshops routinely hit capacity.

“If you make these connections and inspire people that a rain barrel is resilience, it really changes the way the people see their own yard, their own trash can. It changes the way they see the world around them and how it all connects back to climate change,” he said. “That’s when people really start to feel empowered.”