Students in Alison Ward’s AP environmental science class at Boise High School are examining lots of climate change issues for the reports they are preparing this semester.
Senior Kelly Makela is studying the economic impacts of cyclones, like the one that hit Fiji last year causing nearly half a billion dollars in damage. She’s learning that warmer ocean waters can amplify the intensity of storms. “Large storms can be made larger by global warming,” she said.
Classmate Jaden Smitchger, a junior, looked at how climate change is affecting drinking water. He’s discovered that in some coastal regions in California, rising ocean levels have inundated fresh water aquifers with sea water. “That makes it salty, so we can’t drink that,” he said.
Ward’s students were busy on their reports just as the Idaho Legislature was debating whether to include the human impact on climate change in the state’s first major science standards update for public schools since 2001.
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Boise High School science teacher Alison Ward encourages her students to question the data on climate change, including who funded the studies and how they were done.
That’s a no-brainer for Smitchger. “If we actually want to create change we need to have people who are educated on the subject and I feel like it should be required. Everyone should know what they are doing to the environment.”
But it’s not that easy a few blocks away in the Capitol.
On Monday, the Senate Education Committee joined the House Education Committee in deleting standards regarding the human impact on climate change in new science standards they approved. Lawmakers say they want more balance in the standards and looking all side of climate change.
Their decision is temporary, rather than setting a permanent course for science education in Idaho. Both the Senate and House committee will get another shot at the climate change standards next year, when they come back for final approval. Many parents, teachers and scientists hope the new standards will reflect some of their concerns about making sure children learn about the changing planet.
“I don’t think there is anyone in the Legislature that doesn’t want to have that discussion,” said State Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett.
During last week’s Senate Education Committee hearing, lawmakers got an earful from parents, educators and scientists.
“I’m 11,” Veronica Richmond, who attends the Treasure Valley Math and Science Center in the Boise School District, told the committee. “We have a right to know what is going on in our world.”
Idaho isn’t the only state where climate change is controversial. Iowa, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Michigan all have dealt with legislative attempts to block new science standards because of climate change, said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education. The Oakland, Calif., center defends the teaching of climate change and evolution.
About Idaho, Branch said, “I can confidently say that in no other state has the legislature taken it upon itself to engage in such a wholesale deletion of content about climate change from a proposed set of state science standards. I can with equal confidence say that the deletion is scientifically unwarranted.”
Regardless of what the Legislature does with science standards, teachers can go on teaching climate change and students can go on learning it in Idaho schools Lawmakers’ votes would not affect the kinds of reports that Makela and Smitchger are doing in an environmental science class. Standards aren’t a muzzle, but a minimum set of knowledge that students are required to learn, state education officials say.
“Districts still have local control,” said Rob Winslow, Idaho Association of School Administrators executive director. “That is why districts are going to do what they want to do with this.”
I have to give you all the information and then let you decide
Brian Deatherage, Kuna science teacher, on how climate change is taught
THE VALUE OF STANDARDS
Standards, however, provide just that: standardization. They outline what specific subject matter must be covered and what students will face in statewide achievement tests, just as the state does with math and English.
Supporters say good standards provide uniformity and at least attempt to make certain that all students are exposed to the same material. “If it is not included in the standards it is not deemed by the state to be important enough to teach,” said Jennifer Pierce, a geosciences professor at Boise State University.
Leaving out an important scientific subject such as climate change sends a signal “that can be construed as a political message about what is acceptable and encouraged and supported to be taught in a classroom,” said Ward, the Boise High environmental sciences teacher.
As Idaho moves toward embracing a list of nearly 400 science standards designed make science education less passive and more hands-on, districts are coming at climate change in the classrooms in a variety of ways. Some offer more climate change than others. “It’s very spotty throughout the state,” said Chris Taylor, Boise School District’s science and social studies curriculum director.
A and several Southern Idaho districts didn’t find any that aren’t teaching climate change.
DIFFERENT APPROACHES, LANGUAGE
Boise School District addresses climate change throughout the curriculum in elementary, middle and high school, such as Ward’s environmental sciences class. Regardless what lawmakers decide on statewide standards, Boise will continue to teach climate change. “Clearly, climate change is a topic our kids need to know about,” said Don Coberly, district superintendent.
I think it’s important to learn about it especially at this time period with the amount of research that is out (on climate change).
Mahalie Hill, 17, Boise High School student
At Salmon School District, kids get briefly introduced to climate change before high school. But an elective environmental sciences class in high school is “the primary place they would learn it,” said Chris Born, superintendent.
Climate change is taught in Kuna School District, but the words climate change and global warming are rarely mentioned.
“We don’t deal with ‘climate change,’ but we do show students data with changes in the atmosphere, in the polar caps. We do show evidence and science information,” said Brian Deatherage, Kuna High School science department chairman. The district stays away from politically charged words and keeps the discussion about the science, he said.
TEACHING THE TEACHERS
At Boise State University, students who want to be science teachers often take a class from Leslie Atkins Elliott, an associate professor in education. She sees her job as teaching the science of climate change, not teaching students to believe it.
“They have to understand the science,” she said.
She tells students up front that she believes climate change is real. If students question that, she said, she asks them to put their own ideas to scientific scrutiny.
“This is one of our great national debates,” she said.
Why are science standards changing?
Idaho’s last major review of science standards was in 2001. The state has made tweaks over the years, but nothing major until now.
Standards are supposed to be reviewed at least every six years.
Idaho began its science standards update in 2015, and brought a proposal to the Legislature in January 2016. Lawmakers rejected those standards, saying the state had not done enough to get public input.
The standards went out for public review in 2016 and were resubmitted in January. Lawmakers accepted the standards except for those involving climate change. Those are expected to now be used into Idaho classrooms. The standards will come back one more time in January 2018 for permanent approval.
What do standards say?
Here is an example of one of the climate change-related standards that was removed by the House and Senate Education committees:
Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century. Further explanation: Examples of factors include human activities (such as fossil fuel combustion, cement production and agricultural activity) and natural processes (such as changes in incoming solar radiation or volcanic activity). Examples of evidence can include tables, graphs and maps of global and regional temperatures, atmospheric levels of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, and the rates of human activities. Emphasis is on the major role that human activities play in causing the rise in global temperatures.