Wyoming Re-Thinking Climate Change Science in the Classroom

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Teaching climate change standards as fact hasn’t been allowed in Wyoming public schools – until now. A bill reversing the ban has passed the House and Senate and now awaits Gov. Matt Mead’s signature.

Wyoming was the first state to refuse to accept the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) after the guidelines were developed by 26 states and numerous science and education organizations. NGSS includes climate change lessons as well as the inclusion of information concerning evolution, says Katie Valentine of ClimateProgress. The ban against using this curriculum was revealed in a footnote in Wyoming’s budget, where it was stated that:

 “…neither the state board of education nor the department shall expend any amount appropriated under this section for any review or adoption of the next generation science standards.”

When House Bill 23 is signed by Mead, the Wyoming Board of Education can decide to adopt NGSS, according to the following amendment:

 “…the state board of education may consider, discuss or modify the next generation science standards, in addition to any other standards, content or benchmarks as it may determine necessary, to develop quality science standards that are unique to Wyoming.”

NGSS supporters are concerned that the amendment would allow too much leeway, such as the freedom to alter or remove key parts of the standards. This happened in West Virginia last year when sections concerning climate change were modified. Public opposition to the changes resulted in the Board of Education returning the standards to the original form and then requesting public comment.

John Friedrich, senior campaigner for science education advocacy group Climate Parents, was confused as to how the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology could be be taught in a way that is “unique to Wyoming.” The amendment was removed, but the new stipulation stated:

“…the state board of education shall independently examine and scrutinize any science standards proposed or reviewed as a template in order to ensure that final standards adopted for Wyoming schools promote excellence.”

Wyoming Rep. Matt Teeters (R-District 5) stated that he did not agree with the manner in which climate change was addressed by the NGSS, treating it as though it were “settled science.” However, Rep. John Patton (R-Sheridan) says his beliefs about global warming are not important, but he does think it is important for students to have the opportunity to learn the most up-to-date science.

This week, according to Trevor Brown of the Casper Star Tribune, Gov. Mead signed House Bill 23 into law. Climate Parents, an organization that fought for Wyoming to be able to consider science standards, were encouraged.

“This is a great day for Wyoming students, teachers, parents and everyone else believes that kids need to learn climate science as part of a world-class science education,” said Friedrich.

The hodge-podge of science standards that now exist, says Clare Foran reporting for the National Journal, has created significant differences in the way climate change is being taught in individual US public schools, which is alarming to science education activists. But there are still those who disagree with NGSS.

“Do we want our children to believe that their fathers and mothers, particularly in my county, are polluting and destroying the Earth because of the energy industry that they have their jobs with?” Republican state Rep. Scott Clem (R-District 31) said in January during debate over the legislation.

In Iowa, state officials and educators say that NGSS focuses more on critical thinking, problem-solving, and overarching concepts, which allows teachers to create clarified goals in science classes, says The Gazzette’s Andrew Phillips. Currently the Iowa Core science standards state that a student must understand and apply the understanding of the structure of atoms. The NGSS standards, however, will require students to make predictions about substances based on atomic structure.

It also ensures that all teachers are providing the same course materials and concepts, which results in the kind of uniformity that is necessary in a world where students often move to another district, city, or state.

It also has implications for college admissions. College admission officers can know that a student from Florida will have been exposed to the same teaching of science that is being offered to kids from California.

Iowa is facing many of the same problems that Wyoming has experienced, and, because of that, is gathering public input on the standards by way of an online survey and four forums. This month the data will given to a “review team” made up of educators and other stakeholders. This group will make recommendations, and the state Board of Education will have the final vote on whether or not to adopt the NGSS standards.