​Climate change is also a chance to transform education in America — again

When I look back at the 1960s and the crisis of the Space Race, I see more than a steely battle of superpowers. I see a turning point that transformed the U.S. education system. 

Cash suddenly flowed into STEM instruction. Teachers were supported. Schools improved. With the journey toward Neil Armstrong’s small steps on the moon, science and math instruction took giant leaps forward.  

Half a century later, the Space Race looks like a fun run. Our country is in the grips of multiple and escalating crises. Climate change. Political discord. An education system that struggles with staff shortages, rising absenteeism and widening achievement gaps due to inequitable access to high-quality learning. Youth face an increasingly uncertain future and rising rates of anxiety about it all.  

We now find ourselves at an inflection point. As we sprint to address rapidly advancing technological and economic shifts, many see only challenges. As a lifelong STEM education advocate and researcher, I see instead an incredible opportunity to transform education in America once again.  

In the last three months, I have been part of national forums focused on education and a “new green and blue economy,” — jobs that reduce negative environmental impacts in terrestrial and coastal or aquatic ecosystems. These included meetings hosted by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s National Renewal Energy Lab, the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis and my organization, Education Development Center, which gathered industry, academic and youth climate action leaders on equitable green and blue career paths for young people.  

Through these sessions, two lessons are clear: First, we are falling behind and must act quickly to transform our education systems. Second — and luckily — our next generation is more than ready for a revolution.  

Related to the first point, it’s clear that opportunities for youth in the green economy abound. International labor estimates show that 100 million jobs will be created worldwide in the renewable energy sector alone. New York City’s recently launched Green Economy Action Plan is just one proof point, built on the promise of 400,000 “green-collar” jobs in the city by 2040. 

Nearly half of these green jobs will require brand new skills, according to the World Economic Forum (link), and in the U.S., where 9 million jobs will be created in the next 10 years, close to 70 percent of these roles will be available to workers without a bachelor’s degree.   

Unfortunately, we’re facing a massive skills gap that risks exacerbating barriers to entry for young people.  

“The number of people who are qualified to fill those jobs is not growing as rapidly,” said Arizona State University School of Sustainability Professor Christopher Boone at the EDC convening. “We’re leaving jobs on the table, and we’re leaving opportunities on the table.” 

Dr. Rachel Rosen of the national nonprofit MDRC’s Center for Effective Career and Technical Education spotlighted another critical gap in our education about climate: 

“Between educators and employers, there’s a lack of clarity and definition about what green skills are,” Rosen said. “Educators don’t understand what the skills are that they’re supposed to be training students for. It makes it very difficult for them to train those students.” 

The second lesson, on youth interest and tenacity to address climate change, came through loud and clear in these meetings, both secondhand — from private and public sector partners — and directly from young people with a platform.  

Zanagee Artis, the youth climate justice activist and founder and executive director of Zero Hour, stressed to attendees that “we need to convert passive supporters into people who are actively engaged and actively mobilizing for climate justice.” 

“We now have this bold vision of a transformation of our whole society,” Artis said.   

His comments reflect broader attitudes among young people. The next generation from all over the world is committed to addressing the climate crisis in their lifetime, and they want to make sure their communities are safe, sustainable, fair, and workable for everyone.  

So how can we harness their energy? How do we address the skills gap? We need only look at what’s working already. 

For example, the State of New Jersey is the first in the nation to include climate change across seven content areas. New Jersey has also developed climate standards in their K-12 curriculum focused on understanding why climate change happens, the impact it has on local and global communities, and career skills for 21st century life and beyond.  

In New York City, The Harbor School on Governors Island, now in its 20th year, engages students in studying water conservation, conducting scientific research, practicing underwater welding, caring for aquatic organisms and preparing for jobs in the maritime sector of the green and blue economy. Through their Career and Technical Education programming, students are engaged in the Billion Oyster Project to restore oyster reefs to the New York Harbor.  

And by the way — to prove my point of interest among young people: The school is so popular among New York City students that there are plans to more than double in size from 500 students to over 1,000 students by 2026.  

It sounds nice, you say. So where do we start? 

We must urgently push policymakers to prioritize three educational principles that mirror the examples above: Emphasize experiential learning connected to the real world, teach competencies for the new economy such as STEM, systems thinking and problem-solving and build literacy for the new economy — including data and media literacy and the soft skills of communication, leadership and speaking that will withstand the test of time. 

Creating systemic change for this economic transition will take a major shift in how we think about education and skilling our workforce. Let’s remember the revolution of the past as we come together to build an education and workforce system for the future. 

Andrés Henríquez is the director of STEM education strategy at Education Development Center, a global nonprofit.

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