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In New Jersey schools, climate change education will be mandatory

New Jersey becomes the first state to require climate education in all subject areas for public school students in K-12. First Lady Tammy Murphy calls the topic her "mini-obsession."

In this Sept. 20, 2019 file photo, climate change activists participate in an environmental demonstration as part of a global youth-led day of action in New York, as a wave of climate change protests swept across the globe.
In this Sept. 20, 2019 file photo, climate change activists participate in an environmental demonstration as part of a global youth-led day of action in New York, as a wave of climate change protests swept across the globe.Read moreBebeto Matthews / AP

New Jersey will soon require its public school students to learn another subject: climate change, from recycling and clean energy to conserving water and protecting the state’s beaches.

The state will become the first in the country to infuse climate change into the curriculum at every grade level, officials said. The mandate takes effect with the 2021-22 school year.

The state Board of Education last month approved revisions to add climate change to seven standards: social studies, science, visual and performing arts, health and physical education, world languages, computer science and design thinking, and career readiness, life literacies, and key skills.

The move was spearheaded by the governor’s wife, Tammy Murphy, a charter member of the Climate Reality Action Fund started by former Vice President Al Gore to put climate control on the political agenda. Gore and environmentalist groups supported the plan.

“We have a great ability in New Jersey to be in the forefront,” Murphy said in an interview. “It’s good for the future.”

It will be up to local school boards to implement the mandate, including how to teach the curriculum and what books to read. Teachers will be able to modify existing lesson plans for the targeted subjects to include climate control. The state said it is developing guidelines for math and English language arts; those content standards were revised in 2016.

Murphy describes climate education as her “mini-obsession.” She spent the last year meeting with educators to review the learning standards. Some schools like Egg Harbor High in Atlantic County, Delran High, and Northern Burlington Regional High in Mansfield Township have already introduced climate change and sustainability programs, which were used as models.

“It’s the right time and place to tackle this,” Murphy said. “We are going to need climate literacy.”

» READ MORE: New Jersey to build massive $400M ‘wind port,’ Gov. Murphy says

Her husband, Gov. Phil Murphy, shares her commitment and wants to make New Jersey a hub for the offshore wind energy industry. Last month, he announced plans to build the first port in the country dedicated to constructing colossal turbines for New Jersey and the eastern seaboard.

Gore is presenting an online workshop this month for New Jersey teachers to help them prepare lesson plans, Tammy Murphy said. There are also resources available from the state Department of Education and tips from other educators.

Like similar state mandates for public schools to infuse Black history, Holocaust, and LGBTQ education into the curriculum and not be a standalone subject taught occasionally, climate control is expected to be integrated into age-appropriate lesson plans as something students should know by the time they graduate.

» READ MORE: LGBTQ education is now mandatory in N.J. schools. Here’s how teachers are preparing

In social studies, for example, students may research public policy on climate change learn about waterways, or analyze climate change computational models in computer science. In world language classes, the lesson could focus on the impact of climate change on a Spanish-speaking country.

“We expect this information to be woven through the curriculum,” said Cherry Hill Superintendent Joseph Meloche. “It can’t be something that just is relegated to regular science.”

Meloche said his district plans to work on curriculum changes this summer. The state said districts should become familiar with the new standards during the upcoming school year and begin implementing them over the following two years.

In Cinnaminson, teachers are already discussing topics such as the impact humans have on the environment, and expanding their instruction across all disciplines should be an easy transition, said Frank Goulburn, curriculum director.

“Our teachers always find a way to make it work,” he said. “There are always many things being added.”