UCI students Scott Capps and Francesca Hopkins
UCI students Scott Capps and Francesca Hopkins, who co-founded the nonprofit CLEAN Education, lead Hicks Canyon Elementary School students in a lesson on the pika's dwindling mountain habitat. Daniel A. Anderson, University Communications

You could teach climate change by describing the melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels. Or you could talk about the North American pika, a rabbit relative that faces an uncertain future in the Rocky Mountains as temperatures rise.

“What happens when the pika reaches the top of the mountain?” UC Irvine ecology & evolutionary biology graduate student Mary Anderson asks 30 kindergartners at Hicks Canyon Elementary School in Irvine. “Changes in temperature are very scary for the pika. He’s running out of habitat to call home.”

Anderson co-founded CLEAN Education, a UCI student group that designs grade-appropriate lessons on climate change for elementary and middle school classrooms using everything from handheld puppets to ecosystem models made of plywood and papier-mâché.

The nonprofit’s acronym comes from its mission to address climate change through learning, empowerment, action and networking. Organizers also believe science education is suffering because state and federal standards stress math and reading.

“Our goal is to discuss climate change in an engaging and fun way to get children interested in science,” says Francesca Hopkins, group co-founder and Earth system science doctoral candidate. “Climate change usually is presented in a doom-and-gloom way. We want to empower this generation of kids to make positive changes and take action.”

At Hicks Canyon, the UCI students explained that rising temperatures force pikas to seek higher – and cooler – ground and that with more hot days they have fewer chances to collect the grasses and herbs that sustain them during winter.

Kindergarten teacher Kimberly Luther said the pika presentation helped her students learn about natural resources: “It provided real-life examples of how global warming is affecting life on Earth in a way the kids could understand. It’s a great way to engage young learners on big-world ideas.”

Earth system science doctoral candidate Scott Capps and political science alumnus Joel Madero also co-founded CLEAN Education.