September 19, 2015

New standards in middle school science education may include climate change

Salt Lake Center for Science Education chemistry students study hands on science at the Great Salt Lake with teacher Shea Wickelson. 
Salt Lake Center for Science Education chemistry students study hands on science at the Great Salt Lake with teacher Shea Wickelson. || Salt Lake Center for Science Education chemistry students study hands on science at the Great Salt Lake with teacher Shea Wickelson. || Photo courtesy of Shea Wickelson||
By The West View

Last fall Catherine Lozano, a 7th grade student at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education (SLCSE) in Rose Park, studied climate change in her science class. She interpreted data from scientific journals and created a documentary video with a couple of her peers about the impact of climate change on boreal forests in Canada and Russia.  

“Changes in the climate are causing the forest to recede farther north,” Lozano explains, “we made a graph from real data that shows the decrease in forest lands over the last 100 years.”  

Lozano’s science teacher, Dr. Niki Hack, has found climate change to be a powerful way to teach students about the nature of science and scientific inquiry. Hack’s students analyzed data, interviewed scientists, and presented videos at the University of Utah in order to gain a deeper appreciation of what science is and what scientists do.

“I gave kids both observational data and quantitative data (dates of cherry blossom blooming in Japan, sea level rise over time, snowpack data, global temperatures over time, etc.) and asked them to interpret the data,” Hack explains. “Great math integration here! We practiced making claims based on the evidence.” 

Lozano and Hack are ahead of the pack because current middle school science standards do not include any discussion of climate change, but that is likely to change this coming fall when the Utah State Office of Education (USOE) finalizes its new standards.

The new standards include an expectation of students to “ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.” Though the language of this standard is considerably soft, USOE has still heard a number of complaints from parents who are concerned that their children will be indoctrinated into environmental beliefs. But other parents, as well as a majority of teachers and researchers, are in favor of giving students a more solid foundation in what the National Science Foundation has called the most important puzzle humankind has attempted to solve.

There is little debate that the middle school science standards are due for an update. The version currently followed by teachers in Utah have been in place for about twenty years, and views on science education have changed a lot in that time. Science teachers now widely believe that it is more important for students to experience the problem solving that comes with doing science themselves rather than just learning about science through textbooks and lectures.

The new science standards include a stronger focus on experimentation, problem-solving and engineering. Science itself has changed too. Because science is a progressive form of knowledge with new evidence continually being gathered, it is important for curriculum to be constantly evolving in order to stay current. In the twenty years since the old standards were written, climate change moved from being a generally accepted projection of the consequence of fossil fuel combustion, to a reality that we are experiencing today with a hefty amount of evidence detailing its many impacts.

Some teachers, like Hack, have already been including climate issues in their curriculum, but many are not. The National Science Foundation has noted that as many as two-thirds of all students in the U.S. do not learn much about the subject in school. They also stated that only one in five students feel they are receiving information that provides them with a “good handle” on the subject of climate change.

Though many science teachers would like to include it in their curriculum, some fear backlash. According to an informal 2011 survey by the National Science Teachers Association, the subject of climate change in the classroom received more protests from parents than any other subject, except evolution. Having climate change written into the core curriculum will give teachers important backup and the institutional support they need.

As a science teacher myself, I was drawn to the profession twelve years ago when I was working with the Salt Lake City Mayor’s office on a project to get more school buses running on cleaner alternative fuels. I realized mid-process that working at a purely policy level we were missing a huge opportunity to involve students in learning about important issues and being a part of creative problem solving.

I applied for my first chemistry teaching position, wrote a grant for an old school bus, and worked my entire chemistry curriculum around making biodiesel from used vegetable oil. I came to teaching caring a lot about environmental issues, and I still care deeply about them. But I’ve also undergone a transformation in my years as a teacher where I’ve started to prioritize my students more and my environmental agenda less.  

Caring about my students means I want to help them be successful in our rapidly changing world. A solid foundation in climate science gives students the opportunity to join the multitude of scientists, engineers, policy-makers, business leaders, and other professionals who are employed in assessing climate change, mitigating its impacts, and adapting to those that are irreversible. Given how global our economy has become, providing Utah students with a curriculum based on the latest standards for science education is critical to helping Utah students compete for spots in colleges and universities, and for jobs after they graduate. A person who denies climate change closes thousands of doors to opportunities for themselves (and their children).

As groups ranging from the United Nations and the National Academy of Science, to the U.S. Military, the Ford Motor Company and the Bush Administration all acknowledge the existence of human-caused climate change, climate change denial is firmly a view from the past. Preparing my students for the future means addressing tough issues in the present. Learning about climate change provides students with crucial tools they need to become future problem solvers.  

SLCSE 7th grader Olivia Slaughter says it even better: “I think all middle school students should learn about climate change because it is our future, and we should try to make our future better.”