A plan in the state legislature to fund more climate change training for teachers got support from dozens of students, educators and environmental advocates at a public hearing Tuesday. 

The bill would use $3 million from the general fund surplus for a three-year pilot grant program, which would allow schools to work with community groups and nonprofits to give teachers more professional development for teaching climate science and interdisciplinary climate issues. 

Supporters told the legislature’s education committee Tuesday that increasing and localizing climate instruction would empower students to confront the issue in real life, and that this bill takes the right approach at a tough time for public schools by offering support, not a mandate.

Leia Lowery is the programs and outreach director for the Climate Initiative, a climate education nonprofit in Kennebunkport. It’s the kind of group a school could work with to train teachers using the proposed funding. 

“One of our students left the other day and said, ‘I’m always down when I leave this class… because this is the class that actually matters. This is where I can make a difference in my own community.’ So they are passionate, but they are overwhelmed,” Lowery said. “They are paralyzed by a global problem that they feel they can’t enact any kind of local solutions.” 

Damariscotta High School sophomore and Maine Youth for Climate Justice member Audrey Hufnagel said she’s only ever gone through one classroom unit on climate change, focused only on science. She said she had to do her own research to fully grasp the magnitude of the issue. 

“It will be my generation who will have to deal with the worst impacts of the climate crisis,” Hufnagel said, “but we cannot do so unless we are provided with the proper knowledge and skills, which is not currently happening in many Maine schools.” 

In a letter to legislators, the Maine Principals’ Association did not take a position on the bill but said they felt teachers were already covering climate change under the Next Generation Science Standards, a set of curriculum requirements Maine adopted in 2019. 

Supporters of the teacher training bill said having these requirements does not guarantee that educators will be prepared to meet them without additional help. And they said the standards don’t cover the crucial links between climate change and subjects like health or government. 

“Having the resources is not the same as having the confidence and knowing how to teach this very complex, interdisciplinary and controversial subject,” said recently retired Falmouth Middle School teacher Carey Hotaling. 

Last year, New Jersey became the first state to add climate change to its core curriculum, requiring it to be taught in fields other than just science. 

A 2019 environmental education census by the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance found that 20% of Maine educators surveyed felt they needed more instruction to do a good job teaching climate change – more than for any other subject.

Hotaling said one of her students last year reported less anxiety about the future after their climate change unit. She said these grants would help teachers support students by connecting the subject more clearly to their home communities and real solutions. 

“Science is memorable if taught using data collection and interpretation to solve local issues,” she said. “To do this well, it’s best to embed technology and the guidance, expertise and data of organizations conducting real science work in the state of Maine.” 

The state’s climate action plan, titled Maine Won’t Wait, lists increased climate education as one strategy to help reach carbon neutrality by 2045. Drew Dumsch, who leads a Saco-based environmental learning center called the Ecology School, said this teacher training bill would mark the state’s first real progress toward that education goal.

“Climate change education is not just about learning how and why climate change is occuring in Maine,” Dumsch said. “It can also be a response that creates a sustainable community, a resilient economy, and helps meet the goals of Maine Won’t Wait.” 

In this way, supporters said, more climate education can help address climate change itself. 

“Robust climate change education will help build our green economy by inspiring young folks to pursue green career paths, help prepare them for the future ahead, and ensure that they have the tools to make climate-conscious decisions in their future,” said Ania Wright, a 2015 Falmouth High School graduate and youth representative to the Maine Climate Council.

She cited a 2020 study from San Jose State University that found that most alumni of one climate change class made major climate-friendly changes to their lifestyles in the years after. If many more students got similar instruction, the study said, it could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the scale of other significant solutions like electric vehicle adoption. 

State legislators will hold a work session on the pilot program bill next week before voting on a recommendation for how it should proceed. If it passes, the state education commissioner will have to tell the legislature by 2025 whether and how the program should be made permanent.