The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea sails on the Ross Sea toward the… (Josh Landis / National Science…)
The politically touchy topic of climate change will be taught more deeply to students under proposed new national science standards released Tuesday.
The Next Generation Science Standards, developed over the last 18 months by California and 25 other states in conjunction with several scientific organizations, represent the first national effort since 1996 to transform the way science is taught in thousands of classrooms. The multi-state consortium is proposing that students learn fewer concepts more deeply and not merely memorize facts but understand how scientists actually investigate and gather information.
"What's important here is that the standards will give students a deep understanding of how science and scientists actually work," said Phil Lafontaine, a California Department of Education official who helped create the proposed standards. "It's not just what we know but how we came to know it."
Each state will decide on its own whether to adopt the benchmarks, which are based on a 2011 framework by the National Research Council. In California, they will be reviewed by a panel of science experts, with public hearings set to begin later this month in Sacramento, Santa Clara and Riverside. The state Board of Education is expected to vote on them in the fall, with partial implementation scheduled for 2014-15.
The new standards come amid widespread concern that American students are falling behind global counterparts in their mastery of science and math, which are seen as critical fields for future economic growth.
"In the next decade, the number of jobs requiring highly technical skills is expected to outpace other occupations," state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a statement. The new approach "will help students achieve real-world practical skills so they can help maintain California's economic and technological leadership in the world."
A recent U.S. Department of Commerce study found that over the past decade, job growth in science, technology, engineering and mathematics was three times greater than that in other fields.
For the first time, the proposed education standards identify climate change as a core concept for science classes with a focus on the relationship between that change and human activity. According to the Oakland-based National Center for Science Education, two-thirds of U.S. students in a 2011 survey said they are not learning much about the topic.
Among high school students, 86% take biology, and more than 50% take chemistry but fewer than 20% take earth sciences — the course that would cover climate change, said Frank Niepold, a climate education coordinator with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"The current state of climate change education is poor at best," said Mark McCaffrey, the Oakland center's program and policy director.
In California, climate and weather are covered in earth science standards. But the proposed new standards will more explicitly direct students to examine the scientific evidence for how and why the climate is changing and its impact.
Middle school students, for instance, will be taught that human activities, including the use of fossil fuels and the subsequent release of greenhouse gases, are "major factors" in global warming. A proposed high school standard requires students to explain, based on evidence, how climate change has affected human activities through such phenomena as altered sea levels, patterns of temperature and precipitation and the impact on crops and livestock.
Lafontaine said the deeper look at climate change is being prompted by heightened public concern about the issue. Other topics set for more thorough study include genetic engineering and its real-world impact on food and medicine.
Although legislators in Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana and other states have proposed or passed bills to require teachers to include different views on climate change or mandate teaching the topic as a "controversial theory," the new national standards have not sparked any major political flaps so far.
James Taylor of the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based conservative think tank, said the standards aren't perfect — some positive impacts of climate change should have been included, he said. But they are better than most others, he said.
"They are more balanced and fair than most educational guides I have seen put out by advocacy groups or self-professed science groups," Taylor said.
McCaffrey, of the Oakland group, said approving the standards would only be the first step toward better science education. Massive teacher training is also needed, he said.
A new environmental curriculum, including climate change, is being tested among thousands of California teachers in an initiative involving the state, National Geographic Society and Google, among others, but launching it statewide will require significant funding, McCaffrey said.
"There are enormous and daunting challenges ahead of us," he said.