This Southern State Made A Big Commitment To Start Teaching About Climate Change

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Alabama’s science education standards — which once invited students to grapple with the theory of evolution’s “unresolved problems” — just got an upgrade.

Students in Alabama will now learn about both climate change and evolution, under new standards that experts say treat the topics with more scientific accuracy than they did before.

Under the new standards, which were adopted unanimously by the school board last week, Alabama students of environmental science will “analyze and interpret data and climate models to predict how global or regional climate change can affect Earth’s systems (e.g., precipitation and temperature and their associated impacts on sea level, glacial ice volumes, and atmosphere and ocean composition).” They’ll also learn about how changes in climate influence human activity (the standards give mass migrations as one example).

In addition, students in earth and space science classes will be exposed to data — including global levels of greenhouse gases and temperature maps — that will help them “describe how various human activities (e.g., use of fossil fuels, creation of urban heat islands, agricultural practices) and natural processes (e.g., solar radiation, greenhouse effect, volcanic activity) may cause changes in local and global temperatures over time.”

This is just what the science shows and they want their students to learn the best science

That “natural processes” part might raise some hackles among climate advocates. Solar radiation does have some impact on the earth’s climate, but scientists agree that it’s fossil fuels — not the sun — that are the driver in the planet’s current warming period. But Minda Berbeco, programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education, said that though the section could be misinterpreted by teachers, she thinks that it’s still a positive step forward for Alabama.

“With a standard like that, you have to be cautious, because it can be interpreted it in multiple ways,” she said. A teacher might see that section, she said, and decide to do a debate in class about whether climate change is caused by natural forces or by humans, which wouldn’t be helpful for students. But “that’s not really what the standard is trying to get at,” she said. Instead, it’s attempting to put human-caused climate change in the context of natural climate forces to get students to better understand the issue.

A teacher’s professional development will have a lot to do with how they address the standards, Berbeco said. If they have a good basis in science and are able to get the professional development they need — which can come from organizations such as the National Science Teachers Association, which hosts conferences and workshops for educators — they’ll be able to accurately talk about climate change and the forces driving it.

“If they don’t, it’s a big area of concern,” she said. “Now that they have the standards, my goodness, they need the professional development to make sure they have the good science.”

Lisa Hoyos is the director of Climate Parents, a group that works to push the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, which were developed by 26 states and multiple science and education organizations to serve as guidelines for science education in the United States. She said that, though Alabama didn’t implement NGSS — the standards did pull from some of NGSS’s “core ideas” for life sciences — she was happy about the state’s upgraded standards.

“While there could have been more content directly linking climate change to the burning of fossil fuels by human beings, there is some degree of linkage” in the standards, she said. “All earnest science teachers will be able to use these standards to ensure kids learn about the threats of climate change, and hopefully about climate solutions as well.

The idea behind NGSS, she said, is to embed concepts like climate change and evolution in the curriculum, so that students get exposed to them throughout their time at school. So even if Alabama’s standards don’t directly follow NGSS, they’re still an upgrade.

Berbeco agreed.

“What we’re seeing now is states are using NGSS as a jumping off point. And so in some cases they’re changing some of the wording, in some cases they’re using core concepts and redeveloping the rest of it,” she said. In Alabama’s case, she said, “it looks like they used NGSS as starting point, utilized components of it, and developed it as what they perceived as their own version.”

Still, some states are choosing to fully adopt NGSS, standards that recommend that the topic of climate change be incorporated into the general curriculum starting in middle school. NGSS has been adopted in 15 states, plus the District of Columbia. Hoyos’ Climate Parents has been active in pushing states — especially conservative ones — to adopt the standards.

Berbeco said she would love if Alabama inspired more largely-conservative states to upgrade their standards to include the latest science on climate change and evolution.

“It’s great to see the science teachers really advocating for the good science, and it’s great to hear them listened to,” she said. “Alabama is certainly a state that we can point to now — this is just what the science shows and they want their students to learn the best science.”