A Natural Ecology Lab Along the Delaware River in the First State to Require K-12 Climate Education

With New Jersey focused on local climate impacts in its new curriculum, the Palmyra Cove Nature Park combines wetlands, woods and shoreline with the technology required to understand them.

The entrance to exhibits in the Institute for Earth Observations Environmental Center. Credit: Daelin Brown
The entrance to exhibits in the Institute for Earth Observations Environmental Center. Credit: Daelin Brown

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When New Jersey became the first state in America to require climate change education in its primary schools two years ago, John Moore found himself ideally situated as a hands-on educator at the Palmyra Cove Nature Park on the Delaware River. 

Once a dumping ground for “dredge spoils” from the river, the nature park, in Palmyra, New Jersey, is a 250-acre ecosystem with wetlands, woods, a river shoreline —and an Institute for Earth Observations for students.

Moore retired from teaching high school after 28 years and became an Einstein fellow with the National Science Foundation (NSF), thinking his teaching career was over. But he returned to his passion for teaching 10 years ago and became the institute’s executive director at its environmental center for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  

Now, with a newly developed climate change curriculum coming to New Jersey’s K-12 classrooms for the first time beginning next month, Moore’s institute, across the Delaware from Philadelphia’s Tacony section, is a kind of educational ground zero; state guidelines call for teaching students about climate change in ways that emphasize impacts at the school and community level through such phenomena as algae blooms, air pollution and sea level rise. 


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Moore said students at the nature park can roam its habitats to gather specimens and data, then team up with others at the earth observations institute and environmental center to analyze the data. 

Climate change, he said, “will require both of those types of students and skill sets in order to solve the issues. So this is my attempt to work on that and provide this center to anybody in the region, or whoever finds us. We’re kind of small, but we do some pretty powerful things.”

A report by the New Jersey School Boards Association in February describing the state’s mandate for climate change education underscored the importance of this hands-on approach focused on air, land and water impacts. 

“These direct effects add salience and a sense of place in a way that discussing polar bears that live on melting icebergs, for example, do not,” the association said. “The climate crisis remains one of the most critical threats to the planet, and its effects are especially pronounced in New Jersey. The need to develop solutions to this crisis is urgent. Research demonstrates that even a small increase in access to climate change education can result in carbon emission reduction on the order of tens of gigatons.”

The push to teach climate change in New Jersey schools was led by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s wife Tammy, who, like her husband, formerly worked in finance at Goldman Sachs.

“The adoption of these standards is much more than an added educational requirement; it is a symbol of a partnership between generations,” Tammy Murphy said in the report. “Decades of short-sighted decision-making has fueled this crisis and now we must do all we can to help our children solve it. This generation of students will feel the effects of climate change more than any other, and it is critical that every student is provided an opportunity to study and understand the climate crisis through a comprehensive, interdisciplinary lens.”

The Betsy Ross Bridge connects Philadelphia and New Jersey over the Delaware River. Credit: Daelin Brown

In March, Gov. Murphy put $5 million in the state’s fiscal 2023 budget to create an Office of Climate Change Education in the state Department of Education. In June, the New Jersey Climate Change Education Initiative—a collaborative that includes the school boards association, the National Wildlife Federation, New Jersey Audubon and the College of New Jersey—created an online portal full of lesson plans for teachers. One, for students in 9th to 12th grades, called “Air Quality, Health, and Justice,” makes the link between air pollution and public health, for example.

The lesson plan includes the following statement for teachers to read to students: “Human cardiorespiratory health has been directly linked to air quality, and air quality has been directly linked to environmental injustice, meaning that poorer and marginalized communities suffer more from poorer air quality.” 

The online portal links to other websites such as NASA and NOAA, and gives a comprehensive breakdown on STEM teaching tools in order to assist school districts in planning for the implementation of climate change education. 

During the 2020-2021 school year, New Jersey teachers were given training seminars for shaping the new climate change curriculum that included a summit at Monmouth University.  

Moore feels that Palmyra Cove offers a unique approach to studying environmental science and can help teachers in fulfilling the new climate change requirements. The 250-acre nature park is an outdoor laboratory and the STEM center gives students access to global data sets on climate change. 

“What we have done in the past, pre-Covid, is host educational programs to a wide spectrum of schools, mostly public schools, and we used to see about [6,000 to 7,000] students per year,” said Moore.

Max Friedman, an intern who helps guide students through exhibits in the STEM center, said “a lot of what we do is focused on sensors and how technology is used to take environmental measurements.” 

Friedman said several of the exhibits at the STEM center are based on, or identical to, exhibits at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The HoloGlobe exhibit combines data visualizations developed by NASA and NOAA with near real-time satellite imagery of the Earth. Friedman said he can use it to view Earth from multiple vantage points, or pull up different displays of Earth or other planets for environmental data. “I can look at the ozone layer, and how it has changed over time,” he said. “It shows a trend over a few years of what satellite data has shown us about our ozone layer, or dust coming from eruption, and how that has spread around our planet, and you can really see the environmental effects.”

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The STEM center’s technology also helps students understand the many dimensions of climate change, which is central to the state’s development of climate curriculum. New Jersey’s standards required climate change lessons to be included across seven subject areas: career and life skills, health and physical education, computer science and design thinking, science, social studies, visual and performing arts and world languages.

But teachers weren’t ready to teach climate change when the state board of education adopted new Student Learning Standards in 2020 and became the first state to incorporate climate in those content areas. A survey of 164 New Jersey teachers by Lauren Madden, a professor of education at The College of New Jersey, found that many of them were not confident in their ability to teach climate change and some were shown to be misinformed on the subject.  

Moore, named by the state as New Jersey Conservation Teacher of the Year four times, and as Environmental Educator of the Year by the New Jersey Audubon Society, said he thinks it is important to focus on student outreach starting in elementary schools. 

“There needs to be a larger understanding that your career pathway does not start at the university or graduate school,” he said.  

For Palmyra Cove intern Friedman, the power of its hands-on education is obvious. “Three weeks ago, we had an [advanced placement] environmental science class come in, and they went out to the bullfrog pond and the title cove, and took samples of the water,” Friedman said. “They were able to measure bacteria in the water and the pH levels of the water.”

With the sea level on New Jersey’s coast likely to increase up to 4 feet by 2100, Palmyra Cove’s 1.1-mile beachfront along the Delaware will offer a front-row seat for student monitoring and observation of sea level rise in real time.