A recent strange happening saw Indiana first agree to support the Common Core standards and then pass a law blocking itself from implementing the Common Core. Wyoming’s issues are more worrisome.

Wyoming, a center of activity in the fossil fuels industry, has determined that the Next Generation Science Standards are ‘a threat to the state’s economic engine’ according to an article in the New York Times. A state representative, Matt Teeters, said the standards handle global warming as settled science. Well, not quite, but we’ll get to that. And the chairman of the Wyoming state board of education said the standards are ‘very prejudiced, in my opinion, against fossil fuel development.’

Which seems like a big thing but an odd thing for science standards to do, as mostly they are lists of what students at various grades should know. Let’s check the standards to see signs of ‘prejudice.’ Otherwise, we are in ‘he said she said’ kinds of arguments.

Here are relevant sections of the standards and what they say about climate change. I am using the topic sentence in each case and there is more after each topic sentence in science-standards speak.

  • By the end of grade 5. If Earth’s global mean temperature continues to rise, the lives of humans and other organisms will be affected in many different ways.
  •  By the end of grade 8. Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (global warming).
  • By the end of grade 12. Global climate models are often used to understand the process of climate change because these changes are complex and can occur slowly over Earth’s history. Though the magnitudes of humans’ impacts are greater than they have ever been, so too are humans’ abilities to model, predict, and manage current and future impacts. Through computer simulations and other studies, important discoveries are still being made about how the ocean, the atmosphere, and the biosphere interact and are modified in response to human activities, as well as to changes in human activities. Thus science and engineering will be essential both to understanding the possible impacts of global climate change and to informing decisions about how to slow its rate and consequences—for humanity as well as for the rest of the planet.

OK, do we disagree that if the temperature continues to rise (that it has risen is clear) the lives of humans and other organisms will be affected? Hardly arguable. Good through grade 5.

Do we disagree that activities ‘such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels’ are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s temperature? Well, it depends on what is considered a ‘major factor.’ Evidence that greenhouse gases contribute to warming is solid. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes warming and burning fossil fuels discharges carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So, good through grade 8, with a quibble about the meaning of ‘major factor.’  We can argue about magnitudes but not about relationships.

The 12-grade standard is where it comes together. Students are being asked to understand predictive modeling and how it can be used to explore options. This is an excellent way to understand what science does. Students can learn how to model how fossil fuels affect the environment, and in doing so delve into scientific relationships and get a better grasp on how they are formulated and tested.

So, how are standards prejudiced ‘against fossil fuel development?’ If students understand that fossil fuels contribute to warming..which is contributing to other changes that are harmful to humans, which we don’t yet know how to mitigate…I get it. They might think alternatives to fossil fuels are a pretty good idea.

Is that the problem? Students might think? Here’s one way to interpret what’s happening: (i) Wyoming produces large amounts of oil and coal, (ii) teaching children that fossil fuels affect the environment puts notions into children’s heads that might be a bit…uncomfortable…, so (iii) let’s use legislative processes to make sure schools won’t teach that stuff.

This seems exactly the wrong way to go about education. Education is about learning things and about learning to deal with those things. It’s not about not learning things so that we won’t have to deal with those things. When corporate interests determine what should be learned, we should all be uncomfortable.



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