Climate Change in Classrooms: Here Come the New Science Standards

Science teachers will soon need to adjust their curriculum.

There are now new benchmarks for science education in grades K-12. (Photo: UIG via Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

At the center of the newly unveiled Next Generation Science Standards are two controversial, and political, topics—climate change and evolution.

Teams from 26 states and a 41-member writing team spent three years creating the standards that are aimed at creating science education for students in the 21st century.

They were much needed considering it was 1996 when the last time science standards came out. Additionally, the U.S. doesn’t fare well globally with other countries when it comes to science. That’s why the creators of the new standards looked to similar standards in Singapore, South Korea, and Finland.

“The NGSS aim to prepare students to be better decision makers about scientific and technical issues and to apply science to their daily lives,” Matt Krehbiel, Science Education Program Consultant of Kansas, said in a release. “By blending core science knowledge with scientific practices, students are engaged in a more relevant context that deepens their understanding and helps them to build what they need to move forward with their education—whether that's moving on to a four-year college or moving into post-secondary training.”

State school boards still have to vote on the science standards, and that could be where debates begin.

The new standards go beyond science as simply a list of facts and ideas students are expected to memorize. Instead, they cover fewer ideas and use more concepts so students have a deeper understanding. On the climate change front, students will learn that carbon dioxide emissions from burning oil, coal, and gas are causing our planet to warm.

Even still, some say that climate change theory was watered down in the final version of the standards—especially for elementary school students.

Mario Molina, deputy director at the Alliance for Climate Education, told The Guardian that 35 percent of the sections devoted to climate change were cut in response to public comments.

“The basic science of climate change—the greenhouse effect and human contribution to it through burning fossil fuels—is still included in NGSS at the elementary and middle school levels, with high school content extending to practices such as analyzing climate model results and modeling flows of energy through the climate system,” the Alliance for Climate Education said on its blog.

For example, students in kindergarten through fifth grade will develop an understanding of the four disciplinary core ideas: physical sciences; life sciences; Earth and space sciences; and engineering, technology, and applications of science.

In middle school, students begin to create relationships about the life, Earth, and space sciences by building upon what was taught in the earlier grades. In regards to the planet's history, the standards state that students will “examine geoscience data in order to understand the processes and events in Earth’s history.”

Students will also examine the “evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.”

They will make arguments supported by evidence for how a growing human population and consumption impact the Earth’s natural resources. Students will apply principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing human impact on the environment.

In high school, students will still focus on the same sciences but with analytical thinking.

It's unclear how these 21st-century standards will translate when state education boards get involved—even those who had a seat at the table to write them. It is not mandatory that school boards adopt the new standards.

Take Kansas, for example. In 1999, the state board, when adopting science standards, deleted references to evolution from the state guidelines and left the decision about whether to teach evolution up to individual school districts. Other states have also taken similar actions.

The political battle lines are already being drawn.

“It's a victory for progressives and liberals. For us conservatives it's a very bad set of standards,” said Robert Lattimer, president of Citizens for Objective Public Education.

He called the standards “a very politically correct document put together by elite scientists. It doesn't reflect correct science at all.”

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