Once Resistant, MSU Extension Adopts Climate, Weather Curriculum
Six years ago, Montana State University Extension tried to stop development of 4-H curriculum related to climate change. Now extension is part of a new weather and climate learning lab that was recently adopted by the National 4-H Council.
Paul Lachapelle has two beakers sitting on his kitchen counter. He drops some blue dye into one filled with tap water.
Lachapelle is a professor in political science at Montana State University and an extension community development specialist. He’s demonstrating one of nine activities geared towards third through fifth graders in the new 4-H Weather and Climate Youth Learning Lab.
Tap, tap. “And then we’ve got the second beaker that has the salt in it. What I’m going to do is pour the beaker with the blue water, and again this is just fresh water, and I’m going to pour it slowly. You can see as I pour it …”
The blue, fresh water floats on top of the denser salt water. It’s a simple science experiment connected to a big issue.
Several decades of research show the North Atlantic Ocean is becoming diluted by higher levels of melting Arctic sea ice. If the seawater’s density changes too much, it could affect ocean currents that help regulate global climate.
“What we’re trying to show here is just how ocean currents work, and by changing the chemistry of the ocean, by changing the pH of the ocean, we’re affecting ocean currents,” Lachapelle says.
4-H educators and school teachers can request the lab kit from MSU Extension so kids can learn about things like weather forecasting and how higher carbon dioxide levels in the air absorb more heat.
4-H recently announced the curriculum would be adopted at the national level. Lachapelle spearheaded the project with colleagues at land-grant universities in Wyoming, Colorado and South Dakota.
“Really what we’re trying to accomplish here is trying to inform this next generation of scientists, of policy makers and ultimately of our citizens in the state of Montana, agricultural producers and ranchers,” Lachapelle says.
Farmers and ranchers, in particular, are impacted by weather and climate. Rainfall that comes earlier in the spring disrupts the planting schedule. Hotter, drier summers put a lot of stress on cattle, and fewer, consistently cold winter days means more insect pests and weeds can survive.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are a lot of ways agricultural producers in Montana and around the country are adapting and becoming more resilient in the face of climate change. Lachapelle says universities and their extension services, which includes 4-H, have an important role to play in all of that.
“Universities, public universities in particular, exist and really have a fiduciary to reach the citizens of the state and to provide relevant information. Climate change has been described as an existential threat. That to me rises to the level of relevancy that a university should be engaged in," Lachapelle says.
This is a departure from how MSU Extension approached climate education six years ago.
One woman who asked for anonymity because she’s worried this story could affect her current job, says she tried to develop curriculum with a climate change component when she worked with MSU Extension. She says kids in 4-H had expressed interest in related projects.
“Working on a project, a sustainable food systems project with a climate change chapter, seemed like a good way to help young people and their families explore what the options are, understand the science and make some choices about actions they can take today,” she says.
After an informal lunch chat she gave to colleagues about the project in May 2013, MSU Extension’s western region department head at the time, Steven Siegelin, sent an e-mail to her. It said, “You should discontinue any and all efforts to convene any group, formal or informal, around the topic area of climate.”
Siegelin said extension is not “swayed by what is popular” and that her project was outside the bounds of her position. Siegelin said in the e-mail that Cody Stone, who became extension’s executive director last year, would follow up with her to figure out how she could finish the project for her degree but not for use in 4-H.
“It might have been difficult for some folks at MSU Extension to think that would be a valuable contribution, maybe partly because they didn’t understand what exactly was going to be in the curriculum, maybe because of fear of perception about what funders or others would think,” she says.
She says she shared the e-mail around, which went up the chain of command in the university. She did not finish the project because she left extension for non-work related reasons.
She says, in the end, she thinks it was a learning experience for extension and opened up the door for other people working on sustainability and climate change issues. Steven Siegelin and Cody Stone did not respond to requests for interviews before the deadline for this story.
Paul Lachapelle, who helped create the 4-H Weather and Climate Youth Learning Lab, says there’s been progress, but he still bumps into resistance from some colleagues in extension.
“I’m hopeful that the sentiment that we shouldn’t be talking about climate change is behind us, and that there will be resources put into what I consider to be the most important topic of the 21st Century” Lachapelle says.
A spokesperson from the university said it couldn’t comment on the issue due to personnel reasons but said MSU is one of the state’s leading sources of community outreach regarding climate science.
MSU Professor Cathy Whitlock was a lead author on the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment, extension now has a climate science educational network with resources available to the public and university students organized a climate change conference in April.