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Scientists: Updated Standards Omit Key Climate Facts

Dan Brown
Flickr Creative Commons
The state Board of Education may vote on updated science standards for 6th- though 8th-graders on Friday. The updates have been controversial because of what they say -- and don't say -- about climate change.

Members of Utah’s State Board of Education will be hearing  from practicing scientists on Friday who say that proposed science standards ignore some critical concepts about climate change.

The standards are benchmarks aimed at preparing students for college and work, but 6th- through 8th-graders in Utah’s public schools are currently being tested on science standards developed more than a decade ago.

On Friday, the Utah Board of Education is set to update the standards – including sections that have students address the natural greenhouse effect in the 6th grade and the human role of climate change in the 8th grade. Board members will hear from Barry Bickmore, a professor of geochemistry at Brigham Young University who says the standards omit key points that students need to learn.

“They’re going to be presented with a lot of information about it whether anyone likes it or not,” he says, “and so what we need to do is make sure they have a basis, a strong basis, for judging what is credible and what isn’t.”

Bickmore says 6th-grade teachers should be talking about the human role in climate change, and 8th-grade teachers should be discussing the earth’s rapidly rising temperatures. Bickmore and more than 60 other Utah scientists have written a letter urging school board members to fill in those gaps.

“I want them to know that scientists around here support having updated standards,” he says. “It’s just that, in this case, we need to be very explicit about what we want kids to learn.”

At the education board, the controversy over the climate-change wording is being downplayed. Board President David Crandall says the updated standards aren’t political. Instead, they stayed focused on the value of the scientific approach to problem solving.

“When we assess the science standards, we’ll be kind of looking for that kind of deeper understanding that students hopefully will have of different scientific processes,” Crandall says.

The update’s been in the works for more than two years but it might have to wait longer because of a bigger obstacle: its cost. It could be an estimated $1.5 million dollars to revise the test questions for the new concepts, and that may be more than the board’s ready to spend.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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