A climate report card for our schools: The big picture

Editor’s Note:

When a student reporter tours her school’s heating plant or interviews her district’s board chair, the experience can be part of a broader transformation, from passive consumer to active citizen. She no longer takes for granted the systems that support her daily life, and she begins to see the complex challenges and opportunities for making change on the ground, in her own community. Any serious effort to mitigate the effects of climate change will require this transformation on a large scale: a generational shift to a new way of thinking.

The good news is that many of our young people are eager for civic engagement. Students from more than a dozen schools contributed to this project.  None of them earned academic credit for their work; all of them contended with two waves of covid disruptions this semester and two years of cumulative exhaustion in their schools. Even after the school year ended, five student editors continued to meet at night over zoom to put these stories together.

I know I speak for all of the adults who supported this project when I say to the students: Thank you! You have inspired us.

Ben Heintz

The Underground Workshop’s Climate Report Card series was compiled, organized and edited by a team of student editors: Anika Turcotte, Montpelier High School; Adelle Macdowell, Lamoille High School; Anna Hoppe, Essex High School; Mei Elander, Enosburg Falls High School; and Cecilia Luce, Thetford Academy.


One curriculum in focus: Brattleboro Union High School
An earth science lab at BFA St. Albans
Field Semester at Saint Johnsbury Academy
Spanish class at Montpelier High School
Goats and Gardens at Thetford
A teacher and her students reflect at U-32
Closing thoughts from the project’s student editors & community partner


by Anna Hoppe, Essex High School

Around Vermont, teachers and students are advocating for a more climate change focused curriculum in our schools. 

In 2013, Vermont adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) to “ensure that all students are ready to meet current and future challenges, both locally and globally,” according to the Vermont Agency of Education. The curriculum has eight climate-related standards, and yet only three are designed for grades six through eight and there are no standards for students in fifth grade or younger. In a survey conducted for this project, only 33.1% of respondents said that they had learned about climate change in elementary school, while just over 70% learned about it in middle and high school. 

Iris Hsiang, a Essex High School 2022 graduate, youth member of the Vermont Climate Council, and leader in Youth Lobby, a climate justice advocacy group, thinks that schools still need to do more. “Our education system is cranking out students who are good at things that aren’t necessarily what the world needs,” Hsiang said. “We are preparing students for a world that doesn’t quite exist.” 

 Curriculums need to reflect our world, a world that is increasingly interconnected and interdisciplinary. Climate change overlaps with racial and economic justice, with many Black, brown and lower-income communities experiencing more environmental burdens like petrochemical facilities, air pollution or lack of trees than white or higher-income communities. Other effects of climate change, such as natural disasters and drought, may also lead to conflict and displacement. In 2019 alone, “conflicts as well as extreme weather events and natural disasters triggered 33.4 million new internal displacements worldwide,” according to the World Bank

Hsiang had seen the impacts of a silo-mentality in her work with the Vermont Climate Council, where that was one of their biggest challenges, according to Hsiang. “We have these committees that don’t talk to each other, and there’s no real distinction between agriculture and ecosystems and mitigating between sectors,” she said.

The next generation of leaders and scientists need a new mindset, and that instruction can start both in and out of the classroom. 

This spring, Youth Lobby held a series of “State House Fridays,” events for students across Vermont to engage with legislators based on the popular Fridays for Future Movement. “Honestly, it was probably more educational… [than the] two classes that we missed,” Hsiang said. “[We] had these in depth conversations about environmental justice and environmental policy.”

Teachers also often support this type of action. In our survey, one student shared that they attended climate rallies at the statehouse during middle school, while another student shared that they made protest signs in art class that they used in demonstrations in New York City. There are many people in the state working to improve climate education, from the student environmental clubs that did much of the reporting work for this series to teachers around the state who are connecting it to local food systems, art, foreign languages, and more.

One curriculum in focus: Brattleboro Union High School

by Django Grace

Michael Auerbach teaching the chemistry of climate change at Brattleboro Union High School

Michael Auerbach is a long time science teacher at BUHS who leads the school’s Student Environmental Association in addition to teaching chemistry, biology and environmental science.

“What I like about climate change education at Brattleboro Union High School is that we stopped having conversations years ago about whether to teach about climate and human impact on our earth systems,” he said. “We moved long ago to having conversations about how to teach climate and when to introduce different parts of the picture. We are guided by scientific consensus and by the official positions of all of the major scientific education organizations in acknowledging anthropogenic climate change. There is not any hand-wringing at BUHS over scientific ‘proof,’ just the best way to teach it.” 

“Global climate change is an area on its own, a core idea,” says Michele Hood, Chair of the BUHS Science Department, who has worked at Brattleboro Union High School since 1992. After some debate in 2013, Vermont accepted the Next Generation Science Standards into the statewide curriculum structure. The standards regulate all science instruction from Kindergarten through senior year. 

“At first the language is more about the world you live in, the community you live in, the animals, plants. Then it spirals, and each time it’s supposed to get a little deeper,” Hood said. “It’s saying ‘how do you grapple with the world you live in, and how do you intentionally apply practices?’” Adopting the standards aimed to create a shift in instruction, weaving core concepts throughout the science curriculum rather than seemingly unrelated lesson chunks. 

Hallway display of art resulting from a 2-credit interdisciplinary pilot class on Climate, co-taught by the BUHS Science and Art Departments. Photo courtesy of Michael Auerbach

The curriculum holds climate education as a broad theme, but leaves the decision to individual teachers on how to bring climate into their lesson plan. This broad application of climate science comes as a double-edged sword. Teachers are not required to teach any individual lesson, which leaves teachers freedom to work as individuals and create an adaptive curriculum. However, due to the differences between classes and the vagaries of scheduling, climate education moments can slip away, though this is more the exception than the rule.

Last year in one earth and space science class, the climate unit got pushed to the last three days of the school year. One of these days ended up being missed – school was canceled due to extreme heat. 

“How’s that for irony?” remarked Hood with a melancholic chuckle. 

Michele Hood, science teacher at Brattleboro Union High School. Photo courtesy of Michael Auerbach

Sadly, climate change instruction is not cross-curricular. “Outside of science instruction, we have nothing codified, nothing in terms of K-12 sustainability,” Hood said. Climate change is still a very politically charged subject, so outside of specific sciences, teachers in all departments tend to step carefully. 

“One thing that is difficult for us is the line between educator and activist. It is not appropriate in a public school for us to teach activism any more than it is to teach one political philosophy over another,” Auerbach said. “It is a close call. I desperately feel the need for people to wake up to the truth about what is happening around them, but it is not my place to send students into battle as a proxy for my beliefs.” 

BUHS Students March for Climate in Washington DC, 2017. Photo courtesy of Michael Auerbach

Still, in a community such as Brattleboro most people accept that many teachers outside of the science department bring in climate as an aspect of their classes. While there is no structure like the Next Gen Standards that help guide the process of bringing in climate education, math, social studies and history teachers have the freedom to bring it into the classroom when relevant. However, there is no guide for how to teach climate in those departments; it is a decision made by the individual teacher. If the district created or adopted a set of climate related standards like the Next Gen for every department, It would ensure climate change education as a common theme, without smothering the rest of the curriculum. 

An earth science lab at BFA St. Albans

by Cooper O’Connell

Addison Charron and Dehila Habedank completing the lab. Photo by Cooper O’Connell

In Emily Eldred’s earth science class at Bellows Free Academy in Saint Albans, students have been learning about greenhouse gasses and the toll they take on the environment. 

The class’s most recent lab was a simulation of the greenhouse effect, which is when greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere allow sunlight (UV radiation) to enter, but trap the heat (infrared radiation) when it tries to exit the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapor. 

The greenhouse effect does occur naturally, but human activity, like burning fossil fuels, increases the concentrations of some greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. The materials the students used in this lab included plastic wrap, a gravel mixture, heat lamps, thermometers and glass beakers. 

The procedure to the lab was as follows:

  1. Students began by filling two 400 milliliter glass beakers with 200 milliliter of a sand and gravel mixture. 
  2. Students then covered the top of one beaker with plastic wrap and left the other beaker uncovered.
  3. They then took the air temperature of the uncovered beaker and put the uncovered beaker under a heat lamp for five minutes.
  4. Next, they took the uncovered beaker out from under the heat lamp, took the air temperature of the uncovered beaker and let the beaker cool for five minutes.
  5. Participants then took the air temperature of the covered beaker and placed the covered beaker under the heat lamp for five minutes.
  6. After the students removed the covered beaker out from under the heat lamp, they then took the air temperature of the covered beaker before it cooled. 
  7. They let the covered beaker cool for five minutes.
  8. Students repeated this process three more times.

Students then followed up the experiment by entering their data into a table and formulated their conclusions. Several different conclusions were reached with regard to the correlation of atmospheric temperature and trapped greenhouse gasses. The discrepancies were likely due to human error within the experiment.

“I thought it was a really cool and informative experiment,” said Dehila Habedank, a member of Eldred’s earth science class. “I learned some stuff that I didn’t know, but I also learned about the effects of greenhouse gasses and their effect on our planet. I think of the class viewed it as an eye opener to the effects of climate change.”

Field Semester at St. Johnsbury Academy

By Maren Giese and Hannah MacDonald

St. Johnsbury Academy offers a special opportunity called the field semester. In this semester-long class, students learn in an outdoor setting about resource management and sustainability in Vermont. 

The field semester is a three-block class, where students can earn a junior science credit, a junior English credit, and a college credit in ecology through Sterling College in Craftsbury.

The field campus is a 75-acre forested property in Danville with indoor and outdoor classrooms, a solar field, trails, a greenhouse and an apple orchard. Students also take part in research projects and frequent field trips to locations specific to units, such as local farms or trails in the White Mountains.  

The essential question of field semester is: How do we understand our environment and manage its resources in order to build sustainable communities?  

The course addresses this question through units focused on economic drivers in the Northeast Kingdom: agriculture; forestry; and recreation.  Students work in these industries during the course and evaluate how each impacts the environment, the human community, and the local economy.  

One long-term partnership has been with Kingdom Trails Association in Burke, where each year students maintain a series of bridges on the Burnham Down trail.  These bridges are in place to protect sensitive soils while also allowing recreational trail use.  Field semester students work with Kingdom Trails employees to learn hands-on about the environmental costs and benefits of the recreation industry in Vermont, while also spending the day outside and getting their hands dirty. 

Students working at Kingdom Trails. Photo courtesy of James Bentley

All field semester students design, propose, and lead service projects related to sustainability.  Some of those projects are climate related.  Last fall Seniors Ian McNeil, Shea Fucci, and James Lunnie worked with Vermont State Parks volunteer Kate Abrahms on a shoreline restoration project at Marshfield Reservoir.  

Due to large precipitation events such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012, operators of the Marshfield Dam decided to lower the level of the Marshfield Reservoir around 5 feet. This was to avoid compromising the dam when water levels rise suddenly, as they did in 2012, nearly causing the dam to fail, which would flood communities downriver, notably Marshfield, Plainfield and Montpelier.

Field Semester students at the Marshfield Reservoir this spring. Photo courtesy of James Bentley.

Dropping the water level in the reservoir exposed a new, muddy shoreline, which has been disturbed by fishermen standing on the reservoir’s banks, causing additional soil erosion and shoreline damage. McNeil, Fucci, and Lunnie worked with Kate Abrahms to recruit around 30 SJA students to plant just under 500 trees on the shoreline, on April 29th, 2022.  These trees will help to hold soil in place to prevent shoreline erosion. 

Sophomore Stewardship Day is another opportunity at St. Johnsbury Academy that often works in conjunction with the field semester. It starts with a day in the fall where students plan and sign up for  projects and ends with another day in the spring  where sophomores actually complete those projects. 

One example is a project targeting invasive species on the field campus. This project was proposed, designed and led by field semester students Jenna Zorn, Finn Dean and Skylar Bodeo-Lomicky in collaboration with the VT Dept. of Forests, Parks, and Recreation and Forest Protection Manager Kathy Decker. This project organized around twenty-five students to help remove Japanese knotweed and purple loosestrife from areas around the field campus by pulling them from the ground and then burning them. 

Another example is the Dussault Solar Project at the field campus. With collaboration between students in both the field semester and the electricity program, along with Solartech of Sutton, Vermont, eight solar panels were installed. This system generates up to 40 kilowatts, enough electricity to power both the Field Campus and 30% of the electricity used at the Colby Complex on the main campus. St. Johnsbury Academy won the Governor’s award for environmental excellence in 2016 for this project. 

Students installing solar panels for the Dussault Solar Project. Photo courtesy of James Bentley.

Spanish and Sustainability at Montpelier High School

by Anika Turcotte

Colleen Purcell has been teaching climate change vocabulary to her Spanish III students for about 10 years. During their unit on future tense, students learn words like biodiversity, ecological and environment. Students use verbs like reducir (to reduce) and conservar (to conserve) in conversation while preparing for their final project of the unit, and design projects addressing environmental concerns using their new vocabulary.

Purcell’s goal with future tense is to take a potentially dry concept and make it applicable to students’ lives. Students can use new vocab to talk about real world problems and solutions, making it more enjoyable and informative. 

Spanish curriculum is not limited to the same state requirements that other subjects are. Purcell adopted her course’s vocabulary from a traditional textbook but has since expanded and altered the content to make it her own.”It’s really nice because it gives us flexibility,” Purcell said. 

During her time at UVM, Purcell majored in environmental studies with a focus on education. Only after a trip to Costa Rica and a year abroad in Mexico did she start to see how her interests could converge into a career. 

Recently Purcell’s Spanish IV class has been learning about the cultural significance of the potato. Next year when they take AP Spanish, students will engage with a similar unit about corn, and grow the heirloom varieties in the school garden. 

Spanish students prepare potato trenches behind the school.
Photo courtesy of Colleen Purcell

“There is a strong sustainability aspect there,” said Purcell, noting that a fixture of the unit was studying the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on small Central American farms. 

Before COVID-19 Purcell dedicated one-fifth of her classes to current events. Many of these lessons pivoted into content related to Climate Change. Some students researched the impact of melting glaciers on Andean communities and others learned about the impact on Monarch Butterflies’migration. 

Student work from Purcell’s Spanish class, focused on the plight of tropical rainforests. Photo by Anika Turcotte.

Purcell hopes to overlap content on indigenous rights and environmental justice in future units. She thinks it would be beneficial for Spanish teachers across Vermont to collaborate on material. What she hopes to teach is unique, Purcell explains: “It’s not something you’re going to find in a textbook.” 

Goats and Gardens in Thetford

by Cecilia Luce

Millie greets visitors at Thetford Elementary School. Photo by Cecilia Luce

In the Upper Valley, there seems to be a farm on every dirt road and hilltop meadow. Cat Buxton, the garden and compost manager at Thetford Elementary School (TES), still hopes that “the farm aspect of [students’] education will increase.” 

In 2014, Thetford Academy established the Thetford Outdoor Program (TOP) as a way to incorporate outdoor project-based learning into the high school curriculum, where students earn credit for a course called environmental studies and outdoor education. Participating students spend half of the school day utilizing TA’s 295 acre campus. Classes often take place in a timber-frame outdoor classroom built by students in a design technology class.

Down the street at the elementary school, fifth and sixth graders are involved in a garden program. Buxton has been one of their mentors for fifteen years. The newest additions to the project are Nigel and Millie: goats that are beloved to students across all grades. While the garden program has many components, “the goats are basically the framework,” according to Buxton. 

Parents, teachers, and students gather at the FATES (Farm Animals at Thetford Elementary School) fair to learn about farm-based education, with a central focus on the goats. Photo by Cat Buxton.

Last spring, fifth and sixth graders focused on organizing a fair to highlight the importance of goats to the community. They have also spent time writing grants to cover the expenses of the program, lobbying to get chickens at the school for educational purposes, and researching about Nigel and Millie and the significance of farm animals to sustainability. 

Other duties include farm chores, and managing the 6,000 pounds of annual compost produced at TES. Since outdoor education has become a part of the student experience, Buxton said, “every kid in that school has an increase in engagement,” and students are given “an opportunity to be a part of the real world in nature.” 

In the future, Buxton hopes to “[make] the bridge from TES to TA,” and give students at the high school similar learning opportunities. TA is beginning to shift their waste management towards composting. Education about the procedures would hopefully be integrated into standard classroom learning. And, as Buxton pointed out, “we can learn how to read and do math while doing it.” 

Nigel (left) and Millie (right) in their pen on Thetford Hill. Photo by Cecilia Luce.

A teacher and her students reflect at U-32

by Wylder Gluck

Nicolle Schaeffer teaches climate change in her 9th grade global studies class at U-32 High School in Montpelier. Nicolle said that the only mandated classes that taught climate change in the school were ninth-grade social studies and science. She’s aware of self-directed elective courses in which climate change could be taught, but without a targeted course, many students don’t realize the opportunities they have.

“I wish that there were more opportunities in junior and senior year to revisit this knowledge,” Nicolle said, “then maybe take a more active position on it and do something with this information.”

Fortunately, it seems as though climate change information has become accessible outside of school. “Over the years, students are coming into the classroom often knowing more than I do,” Schaeffer said.

Ninth graders researching for a climate migration project. Photo by Wylder Gluck

Nicolle is much more focused on the teaching than focusing the ideas into activism, as a public school teacher, in a mandated class. She still cares deeply about the subject, aware of its severity and eager to support students who want to learn more. 

In the meantime, Schaeffer thinks the topic is too big for just one year of classes to take on. “It’s such a broad interdisciplinary topic that it could be approached in every single class, and still not even crack the solution for how to deal with it,” she said.

She believes that beyond prevention, we need to focus on teaching how to live in this new climate reality. She’s uncomfortable pushing local activism on students from a teaching position, but encourages kids to get involved, especially through school programs. 

One global studies student said the teaching was retained  “as much as you absorb any unit school. You learn about it and you know it, and then you drop it.” 

Another student said she was hoping for updates in later years of school, recognizing that the issue is changing and progressing rapidly, and that to make a change and stay involved, you need to stay informed.

Several students class said that they’d be interested in joining a club or elective that was focused on climate change. They agreed that a year of teaching didn’t go deep enough, and felt like they needed more information to be able to take an active stance on the matter.  “I understand how people with more power than us can help,” one student said, “but it’s just enough information to make you depressed about it, and not enough to be able to help.”

Closing thoughts from the project’s student editors

Mei Elander, Enosburg Falls High School

This climate report card project was a major undertaking, one that put editors, students, and teachers to the test. The hard work that was put in did not go unrewarded, as it revealed stories that would otherwise have been left undiscovered. The stories showed both the hard work schools are doing to mitigate or teach about climate change and highlighted areas that could be  improved.  

At U-32 the science teacher and students expressed how they wished there were more opportunities to learn and take action in the classroom. The science curriculum at Brattleboro Union High School has become more flexible, leaving it up to teachers to incorporate lessons about climate change. This can mean this topic is pushed to the side to cover others.

I learned about climate change in Enosburg only briefly during my freshman earth science class. This required class is the only class that explicitly addresses climate change. Unfortunately, like many other classes, it is far too short to go into depth about climate change as it also must cover geology, astronomy, precipitation, etc. 

However, schools are also finding more ways to promote learning about the environment beyond the standard science class. St. Johnsbury Academy has a unique program called field where students learn about sustainability through hands-on experience. Classes like these engage students and can stir a passion for the environment.

The act of simply writing about the creative ways schools learn about climate change is progress, and shows how innovative schools in Vermont can be. 

Cecilia Luce, Thetford Academy

Working on the Climate Report Card articles has been an eye-opening experience for me. If there’s one thing I have learned, it is that school districts in Vermont have a long way to go towards environmental justice. But I have also recognized that many towns are home to passionate student leaders that are putting in the work to achieve a sustainable future. 

Statistics prove that transportation methods are in need of statewide improvement. The sector is responsible for 40% of carbon emissions in Vermont. Activists across the state are criticizing the systems in place: students in Brattleboro are advocating for more accessible bicycle infrastructure, while working towards improving public transportation for students in rural sending towns. 

There is no doubt that balancing the implementation of climate-friendly protocols and supporting students in need of transportation options remains an unresolved issue in Vermont. But in the midst of an increasingly dire climate crisis, I am grateful for my fellow students’ commitment to positive change.

Anna Hoppe, Essex High School

This project gave me more hope for our future, from the dozens of students who took time from their busy lives to contribute, to the teachers that supported us, to the schools that are making an honest effort to improve. 

Through my research for the electricity article, I learned that my school district, the Essex Westford School District, offsets almost 100% of its electricity usage through solar. This project taught me that sometimes people are doing “the work,” even when you don’t see it. Sometimes the issue of climate change feels insurmountable, but steps like that, one after the other, can bring positive change. 

Anika Turcotte, Montpelier High School

There is inherent value in student engagement  in localized food production. We’ve seen the learning and emphasis on sustainability culture that productive gardens at Montpelier and Thetford bring to schools. 

The challenge is not to confuse education and empowerment with large scale and impactful sustainability in our cafeterias. 

In a survey of 600 students in Montpelier, Enosburg, Essex and Brattleboro,students reported sandwiches wrapped in excessive plastic and a switch to single-use containers during the pandemic. One student reported being told to put everything in the trash can “because they put it all in the same place anyway”. Survey data revealed that just under half of students eat less than 60% of the food on their plate, the major reason being food quality.

Students wrote about policies that force every student to take a fruit with their meal. “I see the fruit in the trash all the time,” one student said. The “take-a-fruit” approach is an example of well-intentioned policy hindering sustainability. 

Lack of funding and labor shortages limit the purchasing of premium products. In Brattleboro, the definition of local foods encouraged staff to order food from the Burlington area (140 miles away) as opposed to a farm just over the border in New Hampshire. 

Our current system makes it difficult for food services to serve environmentally sustainable options. 

So how do we move forward? 

The bulk of CO2 reductions comes from systematic change on a deeper level, a level that involves complicated reports and layers of budgeting. Increasing grants like the “15% grant” that fiscally rewards schools for choosing local produce is one step. Schools should also look to partner with local farms and companies. This is important for reinvestment in sustainable production methods right here at home. 

We cannot use greenhouses and school gardens as an “environmental write off” and stop there. Administrators and community members must remember that these are only a small piece of the puzzle.

From Mariah Keagy of VEEP, our partner in this project.

For the past eight years I’ve supported student (and teacher) projects to reduce the impacts of the energy we use in schools. As this series highlights, each school is a unique system with its own complexities. The challenges they each face every day to fulfill the basic needs of students are very real and immediate: bus driver shortages, food service staff shortages, teacher burn-out, substitute teacher shortages, the list goes on…

Alongside these challenges, we see amazing young people, like the many contributors to this project, stepping up to the plate for climate justice.  Despite all the obvious barriers, this past April saw over 550 of Vermont’s youth rallying at the statehouse, demanding legislation to support and strengthen the Climate Action Plan, and further climate justice in Vermont.

It is time to do more than listen. It is time to follow their lead.

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