Science and Oil Don't Mix: Wyoming Becomes First State to Reject New U.S. Science Standards for Schools

Legislators say the state's economy is at risk.
Two workers standing next to an oil rig. Adobe Town, Wyoming. (Photo: Joel Sartore/National Geographic/Getty Images)
Apr 1, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

It's official: Wyoming has become the first state to block a new set of national science standards that address climate change. Republican Gov. Matt Mead signed the bill earlier this month, rejecting the Next Generation Science Standards, a set of federal K–12 curricula supplementing the Common Core State Standards and developed over three years by national science education groups and representatives from 26 states.

“It’s hard to tell [if other states will follow],” says Mark McCaffrey, programs and policy director at the nonprofit National Center for Science Education. “But there has been resistance before, and a lot of it is seen in the resistance to the Common Core State Standards."

The Common Core has its share of opponents, and several states have backpedaled or delayed its implementation. The reasons are myriad. Some opponents say that the standards force more standardized testing on students. Others question the funding behind the standards or say it's too many changes in the education system too quickly. Meanwhile, some extreme conservative groups oppose the Common Core because of the accompanying science standards that include lessons in climate change. Last year Michigan was set to adopt the science standards, McCafferty says, and a group of protesters stopped the state board from doing so.

Because U.S. students don’t rank at the top in science, the creators of the Next Generation Science Standards looked to Singapore, South Korea, and Finland. The first of their kind since 1996, the new standards no longer treat science as a list of facts and ideas students are expected to memorize. Instead, they cover fewer ideas using more approaches, so students have a deeper understanding of subjects. Additionally, new scientific discoveries are included in the standards, such as lessons on climate change that explain the role of carbon dioxide emissions from oil, coal, and gas in global warming.

Wyoming legislators put the science standards restriction in a footnote in the budget bill, citing the state's oil-based economy as a key reason to ban the standards. The governor could have chosen to veto that line item but didn’t.

“[The standards] handle global warming as settled science,” Rep. Matt Teeters, a Republican from Lingle, told local media. “There's all kind of social implications involved in that that I don't think would be good for Wyoming.” Teeters said teaching the standards in Wyoming could harm the economy because the state is the nation's largest energy exporter.

The state’s board of education chairman also denies climate change. “I don't accept, personally, that it is a fact,” Ron Micheli said in the same article. “[The standards are] very prejudiced in my opinion against fossil-fuel development.”

McCaffrey says the good news is that Wyoming science teachers have been teaching climate change for years. The bad news is that there won’t be funding available for teacher professional development around the standards because they weren’t adopted. Although support tools can be found online, more-robust programs are better for preparing teachers to instruct on complicated subjects.

“Global warming and climate change are complex topics, and they bring up a lot of emotions,” McCaffrey says. “It can be very overwhelming, and it is vital that these topics be taught in grade-appropriate ways, so you aren’t overwhelming elementary kids with gloom and doom, but you are teaching how to minimize the impact on the environment. Then by middle school and high school they have the tools and critical-thinking skills to come up with solutions to these challenges.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.