Pa. hasn’t updated science education standards since 2002. New plan would be first to acknowledge climate change

(Emma Lee/WHYY)

(Emma Lee/WHYY)

A proposed update to Pennsylvania’s standards for science education could transform how public school students learn science — and expose them to more information on climate change.

The new standards — which are still subject to regulatory review and approval by the state legislature — were advanced by the Pennsylvania State Board of Education last week.

For years, a coalition of Pennsylvania science teachers pushed state leaders to update Pennsylvania’s Science and Technology Standards and its Environment and Ecology Standards, documents that broadly govern what students are expected to know at each grade level. They also determine the content of state tests that measure students’ scientific acuity.

The standards were last updated in 2002, and advocates say they no longer reflect the best methods of teaching science education.

Jeff Remington, a middle school STEM teacher at Palmyra School District in Lebanon County, says the current standards encourage a “Jeopardy!” version of science education that focuses too heavily on facts and figures.

The new standards, he said, are going to be “less bookwork and more, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s physically work on this and learn by doing,’” he said.

Remington and other academic experts spent the past year debating and crafting new standards. The plan revealed last week emphasizes the overlapping nature of different scientific fields. For instance, the proposed guidelines don’t actually refer to distinct scientific fields like “Biology” or “Chemistry,” instead underscoring different scientific concepts that are applicable in multiple fields, concepts such as “energy and matter” and “sustainability.”

As the standards now move toward the legislative — and thus, political — part of the process, words like “sustainability” may become a focal point.

Pennsylvania’s current standards don’t mention climate change, despite broad scientific consensus that humans are contributing to a rise in global temperatures.

The new standards would change that.

They describe “weather and climate” as “core ideas” for students in grades 6-12. In grades 6-8, students are expected to be able to “ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century,” the standards say.

By high school, students are expected to “analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.” There’s also a section in the high school science standards on “human sustainability” that says students should be able to explain how climate change has “influenced human activity.”

Science educators who support the changes worry that this will draw the ire of lawmakers in Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled legislature. As part of the regulatory review process, a standing committee in the legislature will vote to approve the new standards, disapprove them or request further review.

The Republican legislators who head the House and Senate education committees did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Cancel culture in the classroom?

Pennsylvania is no stranger to controversy over science instruction.

In 2005, a group of York County parents successfully sued the Dover Area School District after it attempted to require the teaching of “intelligent design,” an alternative theory to evolution that’s been widely discredited by scientists. More recently, state courts dismissed a pair of lawsuits challenging the teaching of evolution in Pennsylvania public schools.

The science standards Pennsylvania implemented in 2002 were the first to mention evolution, according to the National Center for Science Education. The updated standards, as proposed, contain lengthy references to evolution and natural selection.

Galen Kreiser, a science teacher at 21st Century Cyber Charter School and president of the Pennsylvania Science Teachers Association, fears that a political debate over evolution or climate change could derail the efforts to update Pennsylvania’s science standards.

“If some extremist groups find some language in there that they don’t like, they could make it an issue,” said Kreiser. “That seems to be the [point] of some groups these days — to find one particular thing they don’t like and try to cancel everything because of it.”

The new standards intend to steer the conversation away from textbook-style learning and instead focus on the interdisciplinary nature of scientific inquiry. The point, Kreiser says, is not to memorize facts or talking points, but ensure that kids learn to think like scientists.

“The old standards, it was very easy to cover them out of a book,” said Kreiser. “And that’s not real science learning.”

The proposed Pennsylvania standards track closely to the Next Generation Science Standards, a set of nationally developed standards that have been adopted by 21 states. Another 23 states have standards that largely reflect the principles laid there.

Pennsylvania is one of just six states whose standards have yet to be informed by Next Generation Science Standards, according to a research firm that helped spearhead Pennsylvania’s update.

Remington believes an update is long overdue.

“I believe it is going to modernize how education is delivered — shifting it more from teacher-centered to student centered,” he said. “That’s going to empower these kids to be problem-solvers.”

As proposed, the new standards would take effect in 2024.

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