Local curriculum heads laud science standards update

New science standards for Idaho public schools were approved earlier this month after political debate about climate change. The state’s science standards had last been updated in 2001. In this April 2015 photo provided by the United States Geological Survey, a polar bear wearing a GPS video-camera collar lies on a chunk of sea ice in the Beaufort Sea. A new study released Feb. 1 shows some polar bears in the Arctic are shedding pounds during the time they are supposed to be beefing up. Scientists blame climate change for shrinking the ice cover on the Arctic Ocean that the polar bears need for hunting. Anthony Pagano / USGS via AP

After several years of uncertainty, educators in Idaho are gearing up to implement the state’s new science standards. 

“Our stance is we’re very excited that these new standards have been made official and science educators can embrace them,” said Jennifer Jackson, director of curriculum and professional development for Idaho Falls School District 91. “We can work on training, especially the elementary teachers, on the instructional shifts and really implementing them.”

In 2016, lawmakers rejected an update to the state’s school science standards, leading the state Board of Education to adopt temporary ones for a year that replaced standards that had last been updated in 2001. The state board came back with new standards in 2017, which the House and Senate committees adopted after deleting five sections talking about climate change.

For a brief period this year, it looked the same thing might happen. The state board came back to the Legislature with new standards including revised versions of the deleted sections. The House Education Committee voted to delete one section discussing fossil fuels and pollution as well as its supporting content. Last week, however, the Senate Education Committee voted to adopt the standards in full. Under Idaho’s rule-making process, if one committee approves a proposed rule it is adopted, so the Senate committee’s action overrides the House’s.

This decision brings some certainty to Idaho educators, as the newly adopted standards will stay in place for the next five years.

“The standards that we had are very outdated, and so it’s good to get a little more rigor and it’s nice to have an emphasis on science, especially with all the science research that we have just in our own community with INL,” Jackson said.

The vast majority of peer-reviewed studies, science organizations and climate scientists agree that the world is warming, mainly due to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, much of which comes from man-made sources. However, opinions on climate change largely fall along political lines. Generally speaking, Democrats tend to believe global warming is mainly caused by human activity and are more likely to support government action to reduce its impact. Republicans are more likely to be skeptical of this premise and to oppose regulations to combat it.

While much of the debate has focused on a handful of sections discussing climate change and the role humans play in it, the new standards cover all areas of science taught in Idaho public schools.

Jackson said teachers have been aware of the new standards and have been preparing for them for a while. She said they would mean some changes as to what is taught when — some content that is taught in higher grades now will be taught in lower ones going forward. Schools will also have to buy some new materials, such as textbooks, modeling software and lab equipment.

“We are going to have to shift a bit of content around to different grade levels, but not huge, and there are also some instructional shifts and a different way to approach things,” she said.

Jason Lords, curriculum director for Bonneville Joint School District 93, said the lack of an update meant that science standards in the state had fallen behind. While standards in math and other subjects have been updated to encourage more critical thinking and analysis on the part of students, science standards haven’t been. The new standards also are less vague than the previous ones, he said.

“We don’t necessarily want to tell our students,” Lords said. “We want them to critically analyze. For us to say ‘this is the only way’ with anything, I think, is difficult.”

Currently, Lords said, climate change is discussed in some science classes, such as in earth science classes or in units dealing with the weather. He gave student projects and experiments as another example of where it might come up. Similar to some Republican legislators who expressed reservations about the standards, Lords said he would want to avoid teaching that pushes students toward any conclusions on the issue.

“I would say that’s what our teachers want,” he said. “They want our students to ask questions and question things and research and come up with answers.”

Jackson said climate change is discussed in the ecology unit that is part of high school biology. There is also an elective environmental science class that some high school juniors and seniors take.

“It is more of a project-based approach,” she said. “They do a lot of research. They gather a lot of data from place like NASA and (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the (Environmental Protection Agency) … and they look for impacts and trends, and they talk a lot about correlation versus causation and how hard it is to establish causation and really what a complex thing it is. They whole idea is to help them become a literate citizen of the earth.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Idaho Science Standards -- Revised Sections Before and After by Jeff Robinson on Scribd

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews