Teaching How to Teach Climate Science

Villarini, Teaching with IFIS on the smartboard

Originally Posted on: May 29th, 2015

by Shianne Gruss

How has the Iowa climate been changing?

At a recent University of Iowa STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) workshop, several middle and high school teachers from across the state addressed this question, as well as how to encourage their students to begin asking the same thing.

The workshop, titled “Hot Topic: Climate & Iowa,” was developed in part by IIHR Assistant Researcher Engineer Gabriele Villarini to fulfill the broader impacts component of his 2014 NSF Career Award. “My personal interest when it comes to science is science with a purpose,” says Villarini, who is also an assistant professor in the UI Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “I try to answer the questions ‘who cares?’ and ‘who can benefit from it?’ We can do all this great science, but at the end of the day if it remains in published papers, the impacts are limited.”


Ted Neal, UI College of Education, instructs teachers on how to teach climate science at a special STEM workshop, April 25-26, 2015.

While Villarini possessed historical data for Iowa precipitation, discharge, and temperature, what he lacked was the know-how to turn those data points into relevant lesson plans. Fortunately, Ted Neal, clinical instructor of science education in the UI College of Education, has been teaching pre-educators, educators, and K-12 students the importance of STEM learning for years. “Gabriele and I figured out what each of us could bring to the table, then we merged that stuff together,” says Neal.

That “stuff” included 50 plus years of Iowa climate data at more than 60 locations, lessons on mapping floodplains, and coding basics using “R,” a statistical computing software. “The key objective was to discuss the issue of climate in Iowa and also to provide the teachers with tools, so that they would be able to tackle this issue themselves,” says Villarini.

Cindy Hilsabeck, a grade 6-8 science teacher at Starmont Middle School in Arlington, particularly enjoyed Neal’s 3D-mapping of floodplains. “We have some flooding issues in one of the towns near our school, and I’m hoping to attempt this project—perhaps with Ted’s help!” she added.

Like many of the participating teachers across Iowa, Hilsabeck recently picked up teaching earth science because of budget cuts and expanding education requirements. She says the workshop provided her with training on major concepts. “I try to keep applications relevant to the students, and Iowa climate is truly relevant to them!”

Climate is just one of the required subjects included in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which could very well replace the Iowa Core in upcoming years. The Iowa Board of Education is expected to discuss the adoption of NGSS at its next meeting, scheduled for June 11–12. The proposal will then continue to the Iowa Legislature.


Middle and high school teachers from all over Iowa came to the workshop, “Hot Topic: Climate & Iowa,” April 25-26, 2015.

“One of the things we wanted to make sure was that what we were proposing was directly relevant to these new standards for teaching science in schools,” says Villarini. The standards include four topics: Physical Sciences; Life Sciences; Earth and Space Sciences; and Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science. As part of the NGSS, teachers are required to develop lessons that address a question through scientific investigation.

Both Villarini and Neal stressed the importance of teachers and students addressing climate change in the classroom.

“Climate change is a hotly debated topic,” says Villarini. He explains that by experiencing data first-hand, rather than purely reading scientific articles, a person can make a more informed decision about such a highly contested subject.

According to data compiled by the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council, the changing climate has affected the state in a number of ways. Iowa has already experienced many changes, ranging from more precipitation, which has led to extreme flooding events, to higher temperatures and humidity; from agricultural challenges, such as increased soil erosion and runoff, to changes in animal migration patterns; and finally from the public health effects of air pollution to those of a warmer climate.

Neal believes these changes, and general attitudes toward them, are actually overwhelming students these days. “Kids actually get bogged down,” he says. “They just throw their hands up and say, ‘There’s nothing I can do about it; it’s too big for me.’ But there are things we can do about it. And that’s where I think we need to go with this to get kids interested. We need to be letting kids look at the real data and make a decision based on science and data, not based on politics or religion or my mom said that climate change isn’t happening, because that’s not going to move our kids forward.”

There are plans underway to repeat the workshop, “Hot Topic: Climate & Iowa,” later this year and in 2016 at other locations around the state.