Teaching climate change in coal country


In the Powder River Basin, on a vast, grassy plain between the Big Horn Mountains and the Black Hills, the city of Gillette, Wyoming sits on top of America's largest coal deposit.  So close is the city to the strip mines that students at Campbell County High School can look out the window and see steam rise from Wyodak, the area's oldest operation.  It was the school's connection to the coal industry that recently led the Gillette News Record to ask this question: "If you are a science teacher in a coal town like Gillette--a teacher whose salary can be traced back to one of the county’s surface mines--what do you teach your students about climate change?"

"The industries want us to be skeptical," science teacher Tom Jacobs told the News Record.  "When you talk about climate change, you have to talk about it in a neutral, safe voice.  You’re not standing on tables, screaming at politicians."

In Jacobs' upper-level science classroom, roughly 60 percent of students have parents who work in the industry.  Those parents, as Gillette's teachers have learned, aren't afraid to call when they think their kids are being fed biased information.  So, Jacobs mostly focuses his lessons on the science.  He'll fill bags with various gasses, place them beneath heat lamps, and show how carbon dioxide holds more heat.  Then he'll explain where that carbon dioxide comes from, naming both human and natural sources.  But when it's time to discuss what should be done about climate change, he lets his students draw their own conclusions.

Sometimes, Jacobs challenges his students to think like the people they disagree with entirely. He tells them that there’s a bill on the table to reduce carbon emissions in the county--but it could mean shutting down Wyodak Mine.  Then he assigns parts.  One student is the environmental scientist; another is the mine executive.  Others become local merchants, ranchers, city officials, and members of the Chamber of Commerce.  Jacobs gives them a week to research their positions.  Then one day, he rearranges the classroom tables, sits at the head, and has his students stand up to state their case.

Most fascinating to Jacobs is how his students interpret their roles.  Often the one playing the environmental scientist will become emotional.  "He'll rant and rave and act irrationally," says Jacobs.  "It tells me a lot about their perception of environmentalists."  The student who plays the rancher stays calm and pragmatic, almost neutral.  But the students do best when assigned the role of mine executive, local merchant or Chamber of Commerce member.  "They understand that this is their livelihood.  The coal's got to come out of the ground for them have a job.  They're very practical.  I think the kids understand the money aspect more than the adults think they do."

Jacobs says his students look forward to role-playing, as long as they remember that they’re pretending.  Every now and then, the discussion can spin off-course and the students take things personally--Jacobs remembers when one kid called the "scientist" a "greenie."

But that's why he sticks to the hypothetical.  He avoids tackling current issues directly-- climate legislation, environmental justice, Western water scarcity--topics he says are either too complicated for his students to grasp, or, literally, too close to home.  Occasionally, he'll mention economics. "There are so many ways we can grow economies on a low carbon basis," he says.

Once, Jacobs did ask his students, "Is it greed that's driving this environmental change?"  Many nodded.  Then he added, "And what if we close the mines?"

(For more about teaching in energy country, check out Jeremy Miller's recent HCN story on the Taft Oil Academy, and Molly Samuel's accompanying podcast.)

Sierra Crane-Murdoch is a High Country News intern.

Photo: Wyodak coal plant and mine, courtesy of Flickr user Andy Wildenberg.

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