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State education managers say they have revised a set of new science standards to clarify the impact of human activity on climate change.
This version of the long-delayed standards incorporates public feedback from a recent 30-day review of the changes proposed for the state's middle school science education, said Utah Office of Education science specialist Ricky Scott, and will be presented to the state school board next week.
"We made some changes for clarity," Scott said. "Nothing huge has been done."
Scott said those changes include updates to two standards dealing with the greenhouse effect and climate change.
Statewide education standards dictate the skills and topics students are expected to learn at each grade level. The latest draft represents the third attempt at an update to the science standards, which have not had an in-depth revision in 20 years.
The writing team's first proposal, based on the national Next Generation Science Standards, directed sixth-grade lessons to include discussion of climate patterns and the rise in global temperatures during the past century.
But after months of public feedback and town-hall meetings, the second draft delayed discussion of climate change until the eighth grade, with no mention of rising global temperatures, and directed sixth-graders to learn how the greenhouse effect "maintains Earth's energy balance and a relatively constant temperature."
The changes prompted accusations that the education office had given in to political pressure by downplaying global climate change.
On Wednesday, 61 Utah scientists and science educators sent a letter to Scott, the Utah Office of Education and the state school board urging the adoption of standards that clearly link human activity to Earth's rising temperatures.
"The wording of these standards is potentially misleading due to some significant omissions," the letter states. "In our experience, many primary and secondary school teachers and others harbor serious misconceptions about the subject, and it is likely they will propagate these errors if the standards are not made adequately explicit."
Scott said the intention was not to ignore climate change or mislead students.
The greenhouse effect keeps Earth's temperatures within a range that supports human life, Scott said, and the writing team deemed it necessary to introduce those concepts before a discussion on human activity.
"That is in no way, shape or form what they meant it to say," he said.
But it's the context of the standards, not the content, that has scientists worried, according to Barry Bickmore, a geologic sciences professor at Brigham Young University who wrote the letter to the school board.
He said ambiguity about natural greenhouse effects and relatively constant temperatures leaves openings for individual educators to misrepresent climate science.
"I don't think we're so concerned about the accuracy of the standards," he said, "as we are what they're leaving out that can be filled in with false information floating out in the public."
Bickmore also objected to the suggestion that students need to be taught incrementally about climate change.
The physics and chemistry behind greenhouse gases are the same, he said, whether they're caused naturally or by human activity.
"If you think of [the greenhouse effect] like a blanket that keeps heat from escaping from the Earth," he said, "what humans are doing is putting more blankets on."
Scott said he received Bickmore's letter signed by science educators at Utah State University, Utah Valley University, the University of Utah and The McGillis School in addition to several of Bickmore's BYU colleagues after the 30-day review ended.
But similar concerns were raised during the feedback period, he said. "We've made some pretty good corrections."
If the changes are adopted by the board in December, schools will implement them in the 2017-2018 school year.