Every year Patrick Engleman plays a little trick on his students. The high school chemistry teacher introduces his ninth-graders in suburban Philadelphia to an insidious substance called dihydrogen monoxide. It's "involved in 80 percent of fatal car crashes. It's in every single cancer cell. This stuff, it'll burn you," he tells them.
But dihydrogen monoxide is water. He says several of his honors classes decided to ban it based just on what he told them.
The lesson here isn't that teenagers are gullible. It's that you can't trust everything you hear. In a time when access to information is easier than ever, Engleman says that his current students have much more to sift through than his past students. These days kids come in with all sorts of questions about things they've read online or heard elsewhere.
And science teachers aren't immune themselves. Earlier this year, Engleman received a booklet from the conservative Heartland Institute.
The packaging included a cover letter, "glossy book and a CD" advising teachers to be skeptical because scientists — it says — are unsure about the cause of climate change.
According to Heartland, one of these booklets will be sent to every public school science teacher in America. And those teachers could be a receptive audience. A recent study out of Penn State showed that one-third of science teachers are open to the idea that climate change could be naturally occurring, instead of human caused.