March 18, 2013 – This is interesting: as many as 41 of the 50 states will soon be teaching science that includes climate change. Up until now, the approach to teaching climate change in our public schools could have been described as “helter-skelter.” A rigorous approach to the subject was frequently impossible, because the personal beliefs of teachers, administrators, and/or parents got in the way. Coupled with the fact that the last set of science education standards did not include teacher input, science teaching and teachers were in a bad place. No more!Next Generation Science Standards were developed by the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the nonprofit Achieve, and more than two dozen states. The 26 states that worked to develop the standards include 7 of the ten most populous. These 26 committed time, personnel, and financial resources to the project. Other state education departments wanted to participate, but didn’t have the resources. Those states that did participate will use them, along with another 15 that have indicated their interest.
Education publishers Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw-Hill are already on the bandwagon, studying ways to incorporate the new standards into their textbooks. Changes will appear as early as the upcoming school year (2013-2014). Texas, one of the states that chose not to participate, writes its own curriculum. In the past, this alone might have served to waylay the federal standards. However, the rise in the use of e-textbooks has reduced the influence of large states. Most importantly, the part that states themselves played in designing the new standards means they have built-in support. Now it is the standards which wield enormous influence.The next question is obvious: what do the standards say? Generally speaking, they require teaching that climate change is broadly accepted science. The science tells us that carbon dioxide emissions from burning oil, coal and gas are warming our planet. The subject is introduced in elementary school, and should be taught in an interdisciplinary fashion. By high school, teachers will be encouraged to frame climate change as a problem to which humans need to adapt, mitigate, and solve. Lessons or experiments could focus on preparing communities for coastal flooding, or on inventing a carbon capture technique.
Mark McCaffrey, programs and policy director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), believes there will be major benefits in applying widely-accepted standards. When more students are taught the same information, closing state-by-state gaps in science education will be easier. Nationwide standardization might help American students improve in global science rankings, as well. Wouldn’t it be great if the United States didn’t have to play catch-up anymore? Leadership in this area of climate change could well culminate in the youngsters of today dealing effectively with the world’s most pressing problem, before it’s too late.