W.Va. Teacher Keeps Politics out of Science Class

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In West Virginia, science lessons on climate change have the potential to divide teachers from students, and students from their parents. But one teacher, Tiffany Litton, has earned the trust of her students. Her classroom, she says, is a place for honest inquiry, not a forum for anyone — whether the coal industry or environmentalists — to promote an agenda.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today in our series Climate Connections with National Geographic, we travel to a West Virginia classroom. When science teachers address topics like global warming and greenhouse gases, they court controversy. In some cases, classrooms have become battlegrounds.

NPR'S Claudio Sanchez visited a school in mining country where one teacher is trying to help her students understand the environment without getting political.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: It's been raining all week in western West Virginia. The grounds outside Lewis County High School are soggy and not easy to walk on. But students have agreed to show me what they like most about their environmental science class - being outdoors.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAIN)

ANDREW BRENT DARBY: Whenever we first get there, we go and look at what other vegetation's around and look to see if we see anything running off the banks, and then we take the turbidity tube to measure about how clear the water is and how much sediment is in the water.

SANCHEZ: All year, Andrew Brent Darby and his classmates have been testing the water and streams that feed the West Fork River. It flows no more than a hundred yards from their school. Their teacher is Tiffany Litton.

BLOCK: We found some excess soil running off into the stream. And that has a direct effect on the bugs that live on the bottom of the stream because it destroys their habitat. So, we found some neat information on this stream.

SANCHEZ: Litton, 27 years old, shoulder-length blond hair, is a rarity among environmental science teachers. She actually has an undergraduate degree in the subject and was about to start law school, hoping she'd work for the Environmental Protection Agency some day. She chose teaching instead, because she realized she could have a bigger impact on young people, like 17-year-old Mariah Hemrick(ph), who says Litton's class has opened her eyes.

BLOCK: I started realizing things that I am doing in my life that aren't environmentally sustainable. And I started unplugging my, you know, electronics. That was probably what hit home most with me, was nonrenewable energy sources, because I think that's probably going to be, you know, the biggest problem that our generation has to deal with.

SANCHEZ: Now, if only her father could take Ms. Litton's class, says Mariah. He sells coal-mining equipment.

BLOCK: When I went to a conference with Mrs. Litton, my dad made a comment, well, I don't want my daughter to become one of those crazy tree-huggers. You know, I don't think that that generation really realizes the extent of the damage that is being done to the world and I think...

SANCHEZ: Do you see yourself as a tree-hugger?

BLOCK: Well, not particularly. I mean, I'm not an extremist but as I'm progressing through the class, I do realize that Mrs. Litton has a lot of hands-on experience. And I trust pretty much everything that she says as factual, and I try to apply it to my life.

SANCHEZ: What Litton has done quite skillfully is teach hands-on science that's relevant to students' lives. She's won their trust by respecting their views and not preach to them.

BLOCK: My science classroom is not the place for someone to promote any agenda. It's the place to promote facts. It should not be a battleground.

Did you do your reading? Honestly, come on. Okay, well, we're talking about solar energy, hydropower and wind power today. So, just the first three sections.

SANCHEZ: Litton's lesson about non-renewable energy today is typical of how she prods her students.

BLOCK: We've already looked at oil supplies and coal supplies and how long they're going to last. We're going to need alternative energy.

SANCHEZ: Especially alternative sources of energy that don't pollute. Litton continues.

BLOCK: Carbon dioxide. What's the importance of carbon dioxide?

LITTON: Greenhouse gases.

BLOCK: Okay, it's a greenhouse gas. So the importance of...

SANCHEZ: Litton tries but fails to get a discussion going. She loves debates and has been known to give A's to students who disagree with her about clear cutting and the coal industry's practice known as mountaintop removal. As long as her papers are well researched.

And this year, she had her students read "Meltdown," a book by Patrick Michaels who teaches at the University of Virginia. Michaels doesn't say climate change is a hoax, but he says global warming is part of a natural cycle. The role of humans is minimal. But news coverage, he argues, has been dominated by hysteria. There's no doubt, though, that Litton is the absolute gatekeeper when it comes to her classroom because there's so much material competing to get in.

In West Virginia, for example, some of the biggest coal, timber and gas companies hand out lots of free literature to schools promoting their views about the environment. They fund several industry-friendly projects - including the statewide environmental student competition, the Enviro-thon. Last year, Litton asked one of those companies to fund her own project. She was turned down.

BLOCK: Because it was a little environmentally friendly and was told to revamp it and I did not choose to do so. As an educator, I'm going to take resources where I can, but I'm not going to let them tell me what I need to teach in my classroom.

SANCHEZ: Jerry Wheeler, president of the National Science Teachers Association, says Litton, because of her knowledge in training, is the exception, not the rule.

BLOCK: The science teacher, out in the classroom, is relatively isolated. And so what happens in the classroom - in the science teacher's classroom, he or she will scrounge what they can. They'll look it, they'll hope that they're not putting a bias in - that's not a guarantee they're not. But they'll hope they're not putting a bias in.

SANCHEZ: Poorly trained science teachers, though, are just one problem. Wheeler says local school boards often view environmental science the same way they view the evolution versus creationism debate - as too hot to handle. So, they avoid it. A good example: Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth," which some school systems consider controversial. The film's producers wanted NSTA to help distribute and promote it. Wheeler says NSTA refused.

BLOCK: The general feeling of people that I respect said the science is basically right. Yes it is a movie, yes it is drama.

SANCHEZ: But the bottom line is that NSTA has an non-endorsement policy. It doesn't matter if you're the producer of "An Inconvenient Truth" or the producer of coal, Wheeler says. NSTA cannot promote anybody's message.

BLOCK: Now, that said, we have a lot of funders. We have a lot of big corporations or corporation-foundations that give us big money. I mean, millions of dollars.

SANCHEZ: This year, the biggest corporate exhibitors and sponsors at NSTA's conference in Boston included Weyerhaeuser.

SANCHEZ: We are farmers, we just happen to grow trees.

SANCHEZ: Weyerhaeuser has a catchy slogan and distributes Project: Learning Tree in lots of schools even though some teachers consider it one big ad for the timber industry. Dow Chemical this year sponsored a teacher-training workshop that looked like fun. But the lady at the DuPont exhibit got testy when I pointed out that the company's educational material seemed more promotional.

SANCHEZ: We don't tell you how to think, okay?

SANCHEZ: But they sure do try. Environmentalists say having corporations cozy up to schools often undermines teachers - teachers like Tiffany Litton.

BLOCK: What are the environmental impacts of hydropower?

SANCHEZ: Litton says corporate messages about the environment in schools aren't a problem, as long as they don't get in the way of what she wants to accomplish.

BLOCK: I'm not in it to be a high school teacher. I'm in it to spread the word about the environment. And that's why if I were told that I couldn't teach environmental science, I would not be a teacher anymore.

Litton says she's committed to scientific inquiry and accuracy. But more importantly, Litton confides, she simply wants her students to become better stewards of the environment.

BLOCK: Besides from a dam, what are other types of hydropower?

SANCHEZ: Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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