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Integrated learning: a lesson on climate change

By Jack Weston and Richard Goulding

Camp fires in Northern California, USA

This blog was written during a school closure caused by the devastating Camp Fire in Northern California, USA. Alto International School, as many schools in the Bay Area, closed on Friday 16 November 2018 due to unhealthy air quality after days of smoke and haze in the area.

Integrated units of study are an essential part of the IB’s Middle Years Programme (PYP). The units, which combine two or more subject areas, allow students to explore different views and develop a broader understanding of a certain topic. For this years’ grade 8 students we planned a unit on climate change, integrating science and individuals and societies or IAS (also known as humanities) to explore the scientific as well as the social impacts of the changing climate. Little did we know that when we would bring this unit to the classroom, Alto students and staff would experience the effects of the Camp Fire first hand, even requiring the school to close due to the dreadful air quality. The Camp Fire does drive home the necessity for our students to have a deep and meaningful understanding of the causes, policy, and facts surrounding climate change. Because they are facts. Climate change is real, and this week is a testament to that, we should be in the classroom right now and not at home.

Climate change is a complicated issue and to fully understand the multifaceted issues we need to look at things from many perspectives. Exploring this topic in an integrated unit allows students to explore the topic in a way that spans the sciences, history, and geography. Starting in science this month, students learned about fossil fuels and how their combustion creates the greenhouse effect through the production of CO2. We are now beginning to tackle the economics of the issue as the students are putting on their business hats and taking on the roles of business executives who seek investment in their green energy ventures.


Students research an existing cleantech company to learn about how their services and products can reduce CO2 emissions. They then create a new business plan aiming to seek investments, become more profitable and reach more market share. Not only is this a fun and engaging activity for the students to take on these roles as CFOs, engineers, and marketers but it demonstrates the difficulty of moving ourselves towards a sustainable future. This real-world activity will be assessed both in science and IAS when the students will present their final investment pitch summaries of the technologies to reduce CO2 emissions and their business proposals for investment.

In the IAS classroom, students will consider the human causes of climate change and the effects of global warming for societies around the world. Students will begin by viewing Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006) before engaging in geographical case-studies on agro-industrialization, deforestation in the Amazon, air pollution in China and India, and transboundary pollution and acid rain. Students will contend with the politics of climate change, examining the role of organizations such as Greenpeace and the WWF and agreements such as the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

Students of Alto International School, California

We are also planning on examining the impact of climate change closer to home, as students are asked to identify and explain the causes and effects of increasingly devastating wildfires in California and the threat of rising sea levels to the Bay Area – particularly the bay shore of the South Bay, which is less than a mile from the Alto campus. Last but not least, students will study the historical development of climate change before finalizing their cleantech business proposals.

Note: The Camp Fire is the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. As of today, more than 75 people have died, many are still missing. The fire has destroyed almost 12,000 structures and burned 140,000 acres of land.

This blog was contributed to Jack Weston, Chemistry and Science Teacher, and Richard Goulding, History, IAS, and Theory of Knowledge (TOK) Teacher at Alto International School.