Ask a scientist whether climate change is our new reality and that we humans are the cause and you'll get a resounding "Absolutely!" Ask a high-school science teacher those same questions and you'll probably get a less-emphatic response.
For the past decade, high-school teachers have been caught in the middle of a false debate over the reality of climate change, torn between scientists who are confident in their research and politicians and special-interest groups intent on undermining them. As a result, students suffer, according to a coalition of scientific foundations and research groups that has just released a new set of educational standards that, for the first time, give science teachers a solid base from which to teach climate science and instruct students about the impacts humans are having on our planet.
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The "Next Generation Science Standards," as they're known, were developed through a joint effort between the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve, a nonprofit that works with teachers and legislators to develop educational curricula. The standards also received input from educational officials representing 26 states.
And if you're wondering why these standards are necessary, it's because, despite all the political debate about teaching climate change, it's a subject teachers often shy away from, whether because they feel insecure about how much they know or they fear how parents will react.
"It's challenging to teach this subject," says Frank Niepold, cochair of the Climate Education Interagency Working Group at the U.S. Global Change Research Program and climate education coordinator at NOAA's Climate Program Office, and a former earth systems science teacher himself, who helped draft the new standards. "Teachers have not had the opportunity to prepare themselves for this topic, in addition to all the other topics coming at them. Some are confused about where the science is. These new standards provide them some guidance."
And there's no time like the present to get these issues into classrooms, he adds. "The dearth of climate change education is a symptom of a much larger weakness that threatens to cripple U.S. competitiveness in the coming years," Niepold and the other scientists who developed the guidelines write in the their introduction. In the 10 years between 2008 and 2018, jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are expected to be double the amount of jobs in other nonscientific fields. "Without a fundamental understanding of earth systems and the dynamics at work in physical and biological processes, American kids will be unprepared for 21st-century jobs."
Having a scientifically sound curriculum for teachers will also help them fight back against climate-denying politicians and special-interest groups, forces that have been influential in pushing "academic freedom laws" in 26 states. These laws encourage teachers to approach controversial topics like climate change and evolution as "debatable," the group writes, under the guise that doing so gives teachers "academic freedom" while also continuing to sow debate over the science, though none exists. Only two such laws have been passed, but similar language has been incorporated into state board of education standards in other locations.
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Adding to that, fossil-fuel-backed groups are introducing supplementary teaching materials—some of which are mailed unsolicited to teachers—that only serve to confuse climate science even further, says Niepold. He was part of an effort funded by the National Science Foundation to analyze the 15,000 resources on climate science available to teachers and was able to select just 300 or so as legitimate. "It was very clear that there are some intentionally designed to be confusing," he says.
The new standards aren't federal standards, and states can adopt or not adopt them as they see fit. But, the more that do, the better, says Niebold. "Climate science is an incredibly rich topic for bringing together skills and concepts from different fields."
Published on: April 10, 2013
Updated on: April 10, 2013