MILLBURN, N.J. — The basics of seventh grade haven’t changed much. But when the students in Steve Chenoski’s global responsibility class dive into their projects, the substance of their studies goes far beyond their middle school in Millburn, New Jersey.
For the first time this year, every grade in every New Jersey school is required to cover climate.
“In terms of planting the seeds to their knowledge, I think it’s extremely important,” Chenoski said.
Climate change is often described as contentious, but the latest surveys from Yale show consensus. Roughly three-quarters of Americans believe climate change is happening and seven out of nine, including a wide majority in every state, believe schools should provide instruction on the subject.
New Jersey is the first state to make that mandatory.
Chrystie Young is the director of STEM for Millburn Township Schools. She and every other teacher can see what’s expected down to the grade.
“Students start to realize that classes are not just in silos and that everything's interconnected, just like climate change," Young said.
Few states have gone to New Jersey’s level, but those who try otherwise often meet hard resistance. For example, legislators in Idaho spent years trying and failing to keep human-made climate change out of school curricula.
“We in the U.S. are treating climate education in a very narrow way," said Radhika Iyengar, a Millburn mom and the director of education for the climate school at Columbia University.
“It is really a survival issue," Iyengar said. “We don't have the liberty of taking one or two projects and one or two schools anymore. We have to take it big. We have to really integrate it and make it much more."
In New Jersey, pushback about teaching climate change has been minimal.
“Hurricane Sandy was maybe the big warning sign for us here. And I don’t think it’s a very big partisan issue either," Chenoski said.
Millburn is a mid-sized suburb about an hour’s drive from Manhattan. For many parents, it's hard to forget what happened when Sandy hit. Two years ago, Hurricane Ida made its way up to the region, bringing heavy rain and flooding.
“Downtown got destroyed here, parts of it, in Millburn,” Chenoski said. “Things can be built for 100-year floods, but I believe that was a 500-year flood."
At Millburn Middle School, books with words like "urgent" and "crisis" stand on the shelves. Teachers are told, in general, how climate should fit their curriculum. But they are the ones who give the lessons.
“If I was just a doomsday person coming in and saying, ‘Here are all these problems. Now good luck. Have fun in high school,’ that’s a little bit of a problem," Chenoski said. "I try to be an optimist.”