Summer School

Marin Headlands offers climate science for (bold) teachers


“In the end, we will conserve only what we love,” ecologist Baba Dioum told an international conservation group in 1968. “We will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

Forty-one years after that speech, Dioum’s oft-quoted sentiment resonates with environmental educators, including those at Marin Headlands Institute, who teach more than 20,000 visitors a year to understand, to love and to conserve this particular coastal paradise. For the past two years, the institute has boldly added climate science to its curriculum and is offering assistance to teachers bold enough to teach it. On June 20-21, a professional development workshop will be offered free to middle school teachers (grades six through eight), with a focus on climate science in the classroom.

With such scorching controversy surrounding that particular branch of science right now, I couldn’t help but wonder whether anyone at the Headlands had been burned for teaching climate science. Talking with education director Melissa Meiris, I learn that it’s the schoolteachers themselves, not the institute staff, who take the heat from parents.

“If a teacher who brings a class selects climate science from the menu of topics, then we teach it,” explains Meiris. “If they choose it, they generally have buy-in from the parents, although educators occasionally do have a student who wants to debate. But we’re careful to avoid setting up situations that encourage debate. We talk about the carbon cycle, the weather, the greenhouse effect.”

Sticking with the science has been the norm since the institute was founded in 1977, but the most important part of reaching and teaching kids and adults over the years is simple: immersion in a gloriously unspoiled landscape.

“Where we have to begin,” explains Meiris, “is to provide people experiences with nature. I don’t think people care about or take action about things unless they have a personal experience with them.” The results, according to Meiris, are multiple “a-ha” moments. “Those moments happen where a child is sitting on the hillside writing in a journal and feeling really inspired because they just learned that this place is a national park and it belongs to all of us. Or when a teacher goes back to school and starts a recycling program.”

Teachers participating in the Marin Headlands Institute’s free program this month will spend two days and one overnight stay at the Headlands while they work on climate curriculum with their peers. Teacher registration deadline is Wednesday, June 1. For more information, contact program coordinator Amy Osborne. [email protected] 415.332.5771, ext. 14.