Teacher Spotlight: Michelle Schmidt

Sophie Drukman-Feldstein

Aug 17, 2021

Michelle Schmidt is a museum educator working with high school students in Chicago, IL and a member of our Teacher Taskforce. She previously taught in Chicago public schools.



Why is climate education important?


It’s a main issue that my generation and future generations are going to have to contend with. When I started studying climate change in college 12 or 15 years ago, it was something that just the scientific community was really worried about and focused on. And maybe some NGOs. 


But now, people are feeling the real-world impacts of it already, with weather changes and a lot of natural disasters and droughts and things like that. So I think that now’s the time that we can really get people engaged with it, because they can actually see that it is an issue. It’s a visible, tangible thing. 


Have you had students who’ve experienced the effects of climate change?


No, probably not as much, here in the Midwest. But they definitely ask, “oh, there’s a lot of hurricanes, or severe weather, is that related to climate change?” I do think that in the Midwest, we’ve been a little bit insulated. But you always have students making jokes, like, if it’s a really hot day, saying, “oh this is global warming.” Or when there’s a polar vortex in Chicago, where it’s extreme, extreme cold for extended periods of time, they’re like, “oh, climate change isn’t real. Look, we’re in a polar vortex!” And then that opens the door to conversations of, “is this extreme weather?” Climate change is definitely discussed at the high school age, sometimes in more of an anecdotal way. 


What are the biggest barriers to climate education?


A barrier and an opportunity would be thinking that it only needs to happen in a science classroom. Some of the science of climate change is kind of technical and advanced, but students can engage with climate change at any age. 


The biggest challenge is definitely having students learn about these issues but still remain action-oriented and hopeful that there is a solution that they can be a part of. I think that needs to happen in every subject, at every age.


Do you think the hands-on nature of museum work makes the science side of things more accessible to younger students?


Yeah. It’s harder to do in a classroom, to keep students as engaged. And that’s most teachers’ battles, having the time to actually set up those authentic, hands-on experiences. No one has the time to set those up every week, because teachers are just so overtaxed. 


You also really have to think about how students have all different styles of learning. The thing I’ve been reflecting on recently is really varying the programs and lessons I plan, as far as having time for art and reflection and hands-on study and science. Especially when you get to engage with the same students for a longer period of time, having a lot of different entry points into the topic is really helpful.


You mentioned the importance of hope. How do you strike the balance of having a message that’s both hopeful and realistic?


You really have to look at the age. I mainly teach high schoolers, so it’s much easier to be real about the crisis but also real about the fact that people their age can make change— that there’s evidence of it, that they can be the ones driving things forward.


I think with younger ages, it’s helpful to relate it to kindness: how can we be kind to each other, and how can we be kind to the planet? When I say action-oriented, that’s where the hopefulness comes from. Because I think that when a problem seems so big, you can just feel defeated and like nothing’s worth it. It helps to really focus on, “what are the things that we can do? What are the things that other people are doing that we can support?” 


Let’s say we’re talking about protecting water quality. There’s a lot of actions that anyone of any age can do to protect water quality. So that’s easy. We can brainstorm with the kids, come up with things. 


But with something like ocean acidification, it’s a little harder to make those leaps and get a young student to think about what they can do. So, I really like to go down the advocacy route when there’s a really hard problem. I think that’s an effective way to get students to engage with the problem, by coming up with PSAs or social media campaigns to spread awareness and advocate for action.


Have you seen your classes inspiring action in your students?


Yeah. We’ve taken students out to forest preserves to explore and learn about macroinvertebrates. But there was a lot of trash around as well, and they kind of took over for an hour and picked up the trash, which was really great, because we weren’t pushing them to do that. But once we saw them doing that, we definitely didn’t stop them. I think that getting students out in nature really helps inspire them to take action.


I’ve also seen students come up with some really fun ways to do advocacy. I’ve had students make raps about coral bleaching. I’ve had students make podcasts and videos and murals.


I think that knowing the group of students you have is helpful. If they feel creative enough, and if they feel empowered to do it, it’s really fun to give them an assignment to create an art advocacy piece, and just see where they take it without a lot of restrictions. Some students need more guidelines, because they just don’t know where to start with things like that. But there’s a couple classes I’ve worked with, that you just say “okay, make an art piece about climate change. Use these materials,” and then it’s amazing to see what they run with. It’s really cool. 


How do students react emotionally to learning about climate change?


I think students are often a lot more hopeful than adults, and so that’s helpful to feed off of and encourage. I think sometimes they’re surprised, because maybe it’s not an issue that they’ve personally felt, but they’ve heard it talked about in a political way before, and not necessarily in a scientific way. Some of the videos that I’ve seen on our SubjectToClimate website are about students and the impacts that they’ve experienced, like wildfires destroying their homes, or hurricanes. So I feel like sometimes students are surprised that “oh yeah, kids my age are being affected by this right now.”


You mentioned teaching about the Great Lakes. In your experience, do students tend to connect more to local issues?


Yeah, I think sometimes they do. Especially if we’re able to take them out locally into nature, you definitely see them talking about, like, “that’s a fish that I caught with my dad while fishing last weekend!” If you take them out one time and describe the environment that they’re in, then the next time you take them out, they’re sharing that info with friends that weren’t there or a different group. 


I think that it is helpful to connect students to things locally, but it is also crazy to realize how little students have connected to their local environments previously. You assume, “oh, students live in Chicago, they’ve been to Lake Michigan a lot,” and that’s not the case. So, I do think it can be important to just get them out and first connect them to the stuff locally, because often they haven’t connected. 


Why do you think that is?


I think that being in an urban environment, sometimes people don’t have cars, and so it can be harder to go to those natural spaces. Financially it can be harder, if parents are working different jobs and things like that. I think being in an urban center, it’s easier to just stick to your normal pathways, your normal train routes and things like that. And also, being that age, it’s whatever their parents are able to expose them to. Sometimes in high school, maybe they’re starting to venture out on their own a little bit. But it just depends on their family experience before then.


What advice do you have for educators interested in incorporating climate change into their curricula?


I would say, don’t be intimidated by the science of it. Pick whatever entry point you’re most confident in as a teacher. So if you’re a social studies teacher, and you’re really good at talking about human and environment interactions, start there. 


Then see where the students want to take it. I think that’s always a good way to keep them interested in a topic, is to start with a fun project that you’re excited about, and then listen to your students. See where they take their learning, and then keep going from there. 


I’m really big on incorporating art, incorporating a choice, letting the students have fun with it. If you are doing experiments, you can definitely have fun with it. Spend the first day doing crazy demos, and then have the students do some explorations. Or vice-versa, don’t tell them what they’re doing, and have them mix some things together, figure it out. Then throw in the science a little later.


Why did you join the Teacher Taskforce?


I joined it because I really like writing curricula, reading curricula. I’ve always been a really bookish person. 


In my day job, I spend a lot of time looking for good science resources, trying not to reinvent the wheel, because you only have so much time. I have written brand-new lesson plans about climate change, and they can take two weeks. I really think that teachers need support in finding good resources, because they just don’t have the time to make them all the time. 


And then also, I’ve just always been really passionate about environmental science and natural resources. It’s what I studied in college, and I think it’s great that there’s going to be a platform that teachers can turn to for quality resources.


Favorite place in nature?


I would have to say Costa Rica was my favorite trip. I went for a study abroad in college, and I just loved all the different little habitats that they had throughout the country. There’s a lot of different microclimates based on the mountains versus the coast. So that was the most exciting place I’ve ever been.


 And I got to see a sloth. I love sloths, so that was probably why I loved it so much, was seeing mama sloths with baby sloths on their bellies.

Want to read more? Check our blog.