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Climate Change In The Classroom: The Debate Continues In Wyoming

Jeremy Wilburn, Flickr Creative Commons

Nearly a year after Wyoming lawmakers blocked the State Board of Education from considering a set of science standards that include climate change, a bill to put the standards back on the table is up for debate. When the dust settles, it could mean a change in classroom conversations about climate.

At Natrona County High School in Casper, 10th grade biology students are dropping bits of beef liver into test tubes filled with hydrogen peroxide. Today’s lesson is on enzymes, but science teacher Bryan Aivazian doesn’t spend much time lecturing.

“I’m a firm believer that if you’re doing active science, kids are more likely to remember what they saw,” Aivazian says. “Because really, that’s what science is…exploring the world and trying to make sense of it.”

That’s why Aivazian says he’s such a big fan of the new Next Generation Science Standards that many states are considering. Standards are benchmarks for what kids should know at each grade level. Wyoming’s current science standards are about 7 years old—and Aivazian says they’re more about memorization than understanding.

“The new standards are saying we want students to be able to show that they can do something with that information,” Aivazian says. “Can they think critically? Can they apply that to situations in their life in the real world?”

These standards were developed by 26 state governments and some national science education groups. They propose big changes to the way science is taught in the United States. Wyoming was on its way toward adopting them last year when one of those changes caught the attention of lawmakers. The standards say, starting in middle school, students should learn about global climate change—and understand how human activity contributes to it.

“I think, obviously, our students need to learn about climate change, but I think it should be all held in context,” says former Goshen County Representative Matt Teeters. “I felt like it was overemphasized—almost activism within the curriculum.”

Teeters authored the last-minute footnote that was added to the state’s budget bill last year—blocking the standards.

I'm a firm believer that if you're doing active science, kids are more likely to remember what they saw. Because really, that's what science is...exploring the world and trying to make sense of it.

Among the objections was the idea that Wyoming’s economy would be hurt if students were taught that burning fossil fuels is a major factor in the rise of average temperatures over the past century.

“Certainly it’s a concern to me,” says Gillette Representative Scott Clem. “I come from coal country, right in the middle of Campbell County, so it’s vital to our economy. We know that coal produces electricity. Cheap electricity.”

The debate continues this year, as lawmakers are advancing a bill that would undo last year’s footnote and put the controversial science standards back in play.

Clem fought the bill in the House, but it passed late last month—and the Senate will take it up soon. Its fate is uncertain, as Clem is hardly the only lawmaker who doesn’t like what students might learn about climate change under the standards.

“We don’t want to fill their heads with some of these opinions about science,” says Clem. “Let’s look at the actual evidence. Let’s not look at models where people are putting in what they think is going to occur and getting some of these theories that the polar ice caps are going to melt and our coasts are going to flood because of rising tides and things like that.

According to the actual evidence, gathered by NASA and scientists around the world, much of the planet’s ice is melting at alarming rates. Sea levels are rising. And last year was the hottest on earth since record-keeping began.

The debate over climate change exists in politics, but not in science. Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is occurring—and that warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activity. But that news doesn’t play well in some parts of the state.

Jodi Crago-Wyllie points out where a new coal exhibit will soon open inside Campbell County School District’s science center.

The Powder River Basin provides 40 percent of the nation’s coal, and the Bureau of Land Management estimates that coal from the region is responsible for 13 percent of the nation’s total carbon dioxide emissions. But that fact probably won’t be featured here. Crago-Wyllie says this educational display is being designed by the second largest coal company in the country—Arch Coal.

“I believe that our industries don’t toot their own horn,” says Crago-Wyllie. “They just don’t. And I feel like we need to give them an opportunity to do a little of that.”

At Campbell County High School there’s a bit more discussion of the environmental impacts of the region’s key industry.

“The kids do come in with strong opinions, which obviously come from home,” says science teacher Toni Hladky. “But we have strong opinions from both sides, so we can get some good debate.”

Most of her students have some connection to the energy industry. Hladky’s own family runs one of the state’s largest drilling contractors. She says she tries to present “both sides” when teaching about climate change—and that’s how many teachers approach the issue.

“If you’re talking about global warming, it’s really hard to find good material from both sides—I guess, to find a balance.”

On one hand, you have scientific consensus and observable evidence for climate change. On the other, you have public skepticism and a perceived threat to Wyoming’s energy economy.

The new standards tell teachers that that balance is a false one. In states that adopt the new science standards, some will update their approaches to climate change in the classroom. In the days ahead, state lawmakers will decide if some Wyoming teachers can possibly be among them.

These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen!  -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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