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Orem • Lakeridge Junior High eighth-grader Brent Arnold stood outside his school last week, waiting to launch a plastic bottle 200 feet into the sky.
His assignment: design a rocket that would safely transport an egg up into the air and back down to the ground without breaking.
To complete the task, Arnold had filled his bottle with packing peanuts, foam and sand.
"I'm not totally sure if it's going to work or not," he said. "We'll see."
A few minutes later, Arnold retrieved his rocket from one of the school's fields, opened it and held up a Ziploc bag.
"It died," he said, flicking the dripping egg off of his hands.
Most of the "astronauts" launched by Arnold's science classmates suffered a similar fate on their return journey to earth. Rockets stuffed with rubber bands, marshmallows, bubble wrap, wadded paper and socks proved little match for the 200-foot drop.
But the students' teacher, Josh Stowers, remained upbeat, encouraging his class to think about what they could have done differently and why some models were more successful than others.
"Traditionally we learn about science in the classroom," Stowers said. "But what we'd like them to know is how to do science."
Assignments like the bottle rocket experiment, in which students design their own solution to a problem, are at the root of a new series of proposed statewide science standards being developed by the Utah State Office of Education.
The new benchmarks for grades six, seven and eight would be the first piece in a significant overhaul of Utah's science curriculum, which has remained largely unchanged for almost two decades.
Revisions to the science core are intended to promote applied learning over rote memorization, according to Ricky Scott, a science specialist with the State Office of Education, and include a greater emphasis on engineering and experimentation.
"We're trying to give our students opportunities to solve problems," he said.
But the new standards, which were scheduled to be released for public review and comment this month, were put on hold last Thursday by the state school board's Standards and Assessment Committee.
Some members worried about incorporating computer science into the new standards, said board member Laura Belnap. They questioned whether moving forward would require additional work in the future.
"Right now, we're going to send it back to the [state office]," she said. "The committee wants to meet with the staff and the writing team."
Much like the state's recently rejiggered standards for math and English, which include benchmarks known as the Common Core, an update of science expectations is not without controversy. And the board's decision to press pause was welcome news to many Utahns who worry the standards had been drafted with insufficient local feedback.
Some teachers and parents, including a few who helped draft the new science standards, worry that education managers are once again looking outside the state, rather than within, to determine how and what children should be taught.
"I am not in favor of the draft standards," said Allisa Ellis, a Utah County parent who served on a state review committee for the standards. "I think we should send them back and start over."
Ellis said Utah's new standards were "copied and pasted" from the Next Generation Science Standards, which, like the Common Core, were written by a consortium of national experts and are now being considered by several states.
That criticism was echoed by Lindon parent Vincent Newmeyer, who also served on the standards review committee. He said Utah's standards reflect the Next Generation standards with minimal alterations by local educators.
"There was only minor, minor fluff put on to make a Utah-type standard," Newmeyer said.
Newmeyer said greater involvement from Utah's parents was needed in the drafting process. He said most of the participants on the 15-member review committee, which by statute includes appointees selected by the Utah Senate, Utah House and state school board, were culled from schools and universities.
"There were only a few people who carried the parent frame of mind," he said. "All the others had been schooled in the framework of educational thought."
Newmeyer believes Utah's proposed guidelines took positions on controversial subjects, with students expected to accept as fact concepts that remain under debate at least politically.
"That is true with global warming, that is true with Darwinian evolution and a number of other things," he said. "It's not a science class in these areas. It's an indoctrination class."
Education managers acknowledge that subjects like climate change and evolution appeared in the draft standards.
But Sara Young, who works in the STEM – or science, technology, engineering and mathematics – department of the State Office of Education, said the standards direct teachers to acknowledge disagreements in the scientific community. And, Young notes, one of the purposes of the public review period was to identify content that could be considered objectionable.
"We're fully aware that there are certain concepts that individuals in our community feel passionately about, one way or another," she said. "That's really the beauty of public review, having that opportunity for feedback."
Stowers, who also is president of the Utah Science Teachers Association, said the standards do not take a position on controversial subjects, but instead encourage students to draw their own conclusions.
"What we're trying to help our students do is look at the scientific evidence that's available," he said. "Science presents information and we as a society have to decide how we use that information."
Stowers said the Utah Science Teachers Association is in "strong support" of the new standards. They represent best practices in science education, he said, and were written with significant input from Utah science teachers.
He acknowledged a similarity between the Utah standards and the Next Generation standards, but he emphasized that national expertise was used as a foundation that local Utahns then built upon. "They've taken that and made it what we need it to be in Utah."
The new standards would have created a more integrated approach to science education, Stowers said. Instead of teaching students a unit on physics, followed by units on chemistry and geography, the new standards encouraged blending different disciplines throughout the year.
He said the shift could be challenging for sixth-grade students, but in time, those issues would be addressed as the state office develops new standards for elementary schools.
"For the first year or two, there may be a bit of a gap," Stowers said. "But as we look out long-term, we'll see that they do build on each other."
But not all science teachers agree.
Steven Hill, a sixth-grade teacher at Adele C. Young Intermediate School in Brigham City, said he was concerned about the skills gap the new standards create between elementary and middle school students.
"They're just throwing 11- and 12-year-olds into a fairly complex core," he said.
He also worries about controversial content. Individual teachers would be able to teach subjects like climate change and evolution without bias, Hill said. But parents might still object to those subjects being discussed in the classroom.
"We're going to have parents upset at us and we're just doing what the state told us to do," he said. "Whatever core the state gives us, we teach."
Hill is skeptical that a public review period would have resulted in changes to the standards. Too much work had been done for the State Office of Education to backtrack and incorporate feedback, he said.
He compared the process to building a house. The State Office of Education had essentially completed construction before asking an inspector to look for issues. To make fixes now, he said, would require tearing the whole house down.
"I'm just afraid they're going to say, 'Deal with it. If you don't like it, leave,'" he said.
Young emphasizes the draft standards were not final. The public review period would have gathered more input from teachers like Hill and Stowers.
"Our draft and our standards are only as good as the number of people that have had the opportunity to provide input," she said.
With the public review now on hold, it is not clear what the next steps for the science standards will be. State school board members removed discussion of the standards from their agenda Friday.
Belnap said it is too early to suggest when an updated draft of the standards would return to the board for consideration.
Whenever the science core is updated, board member Leslie Castle said, the standards must be free of political or religious bias.
"I would hate for us to have not only the most underfunded group of students, but also the stupidest students, because they don't have a science curriculum that is what it should be," she said.