A new set of goals unveiled Tuesday for what all American students should know about science could change the way it is taught, from kindergarten through high school.
The voluntary measures, the first in more than 15 years, are intended to give students a basic understanding of core ideas in science and how scientists work. Developed by Achieve, a nonpartisan education advocacy group, in collaboration with 26 states, they cover fewer topics but in greater depth, building in complexity from grade to grade.
They are meant to be a good foundation for students who go on in science fields and everyone else as well.
“I think it’s an opportunity to engage students in critical thinking and the kind of learning that’s going to stick with them for life, rather than a lot of facts and figures," said Donald Boesch, a professor of marine science and president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
The core areas in the new standards are the physical sciences, life sciences, the application of science in technology and engineering, and Earth and space science.
David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, which was involved in writing the standards, said a big part of the new way of teaching science will be emphasis on the scientific process.
“The basis of science is understanding how you accumulate evidence, assemble that evidence and observation to construct a logical argument, and come up with a defendable conclusion about the way the world works,” Evans said. “I think we’d see a lot less controversy over the findings of science – in whatever field it might be – if people understood how science is conducted.”
Climate change is one area of science that has divided public opinion, and it's part of the new standards under Earth science.
Mark McCaffrey, programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif., said that most people get “scattered bits of information” about climate change, “but that doesn’t lend itself to informed decision-making.”
The vast majority of scientists who study the climate have concluded that the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are mainly responsible for a long-term increase in global average temperature.
But others claim the science behind climate change is inconclusive or politically motivated. Some, like radio host Rush Limbaugh, call it a hoax. Free market advocacy groups, such as the Heartland Institute, argue that climate change is uncertain and should be taught as a debate. In Washington, the issue is so politically divisive that it’s hardly mentioned.
No states are obligated to adopt the standards. The funding for developing them was provided mainly by the Carnegie Foundation, according to Achieve.
The basis for the new standards is a report by the National Research Council in 2011, “A Framework for K-12 Science Education.” The council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, said at the time that its report “identifies the key scientific ideas and practices all students should learn by the end of high school. The framework will serve as the foundation for new K-12 science education standards, to replace those issued more than a decade ago.”
Evans said the new standards would require “a lot of professional development for teachers” to help them learn new material and teach in new ways.
Frank Niepold, co-chair of the Climate Education Interagency Working Group at the U.S. Global Change Research Program, said the climate change portion could be challenging, because many teachers don’t have a background in Earth sciences and don’t know what materials are reliable.
“It’s a really tall order for teachers right now,” he said. “What this does is it provides them some guidance . . . on where the science is coming from.”
Matt Varvir of the Alliance for Climate Education, who talks to students in his native Dallas-Fort Worth area about climate change, said he’s been surprised to hear of very little pressure from parents on teachers not to teach climate science.
“I was expecting to have some problems with that,” Varvir said. “I’m more concerned with getting students motivated and less apathetic.”
The 26 states that helped write the new standards are: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.