Some would like to see lessons about human-caused climate change taught in classrooms across the nation and last week they took a big step toward that goal. After years of work by 26 states, the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the nonprofit Achieve, a new set of science standards has been released.
Among many other things, the Next Generation Science Standards include discussion of human-caused climate change and they could change how science is taught in much of the country, including in Utah.
Utah was not among the 26 states that led the development effort, but it did review drafts of the standards, which outline the concepts students should learn in each grade. The standards aim to teach students fewer concepts but in more depth.
Debra Roberts, state school board chairwoman, said the state has no plans now to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards as a whole, as it did with Common Core math and language-arts standards several years ago.
Still, as Utah continues to revise its own science standards, "will our people be informed by what's happening in the nation? Yes, it would be silly not to," Roberts said, "but they will be uniquely Utah standards."
Lead or supporting role? • The Next Generation standards take a somewhat stronger stance on human-caused climate change than Utah's.
For example, they ask students "to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century." Examples, they add, "include human activities [such as fossil-fuel combustion, cement production and agricultural activity] ... Emphasis is on the major role that human activities play in causing the rise in global temperatures."
Utah's earth science standards, slated to be put in place in the fall, ask students to "examine the natural and human-caused processes that cause Earth's climate to change over intervals of time," with a further explanation that students should "describe how human activity influences the carbon cycle and may contribute to climate change."
"We believe there's no more important lesson that students can be learning right now than climate science," said Mario Molina, deputy director of the Alliance for Climate Education, during a media call.
Others, however, oppose them precisely because of how they address climate change.
The new standards "convey an anti-human message regarding human activities, population growth and environmental impacts that is not scientifically justified," according to a statement released last week by The Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank. "They certainly convey an environmental-activist bias."
Control issues • When Utah adopted the Common Core standards, critics worried the state might lose control over its classrooms.
"We're more in favor of having standards developed as close to the kids who will be taught them as possible so education can be individualized," said David Buer, communications director for The Sutherland Institute.
While many education leaders said such fears were unfounded, the experience made some wary of future efforts in other subjects.
But, in some ways, the new standards might not be so different from Utah's current ones. Both Utah and Next Generation standards are based on some of the same recommendations, said Sarah Young, a science specialist at the State Office of Education. She noted that Brett Moulding, a former Utah science specialist, was a lead writer for Next Generation.
Josh Stowers, president-elect of the Utah Science Teachers Association, said he senses that many Utah science teachers see the Next Generation standards as a positive step even if Utah doesn't intend at the moment to adopt them all.
"They really emphasize not just learning information," Stowers said, "but also doing science and being active."
Scientific solutions • Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, a member of the House Education Committee, said he supports discussing climate change in classrooms, once it passes muster in the state's review process.
"If you don't expose them to the evidence of climate change," he said, "how are we going to solve the problems [raised in] the debate?"
A bill sponsored by Powell this winter linked Utah wildfires and climate change. If it had passed, it would have been state law's first acknowledgment of climate change.
Sara Ma, a senior in West High's International Baccalaureate program, was one of the students behind Powell's bill. She is a co-founder of iMatter, a national student group urging policymakers to address climate change.
Recently she urged a disbeliever to look at the evidence on climate change. But the disbeliever shot back, "The science is wrong."
The flap left her exasperated. "I don't see why science should be so undervalued."