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Science teacher Matthew Fox approached the climate change materials he had received in his school mailbox in the same way he had taught his students to think like scientists — with an objective frame of mind.
Fox was part of the first wave of 25,000 science teachers in March who received an unsolicited package from the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank, which casts doubt on the role humans play in climate change. The package contains a booklet, ‘Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming,’ a DVD, and a cover letter, which encourages educators to teach their students that a lively debate over climate change continues to take place among scientists.
“None of my colleagues were fooled. I think we are all very aware of the limitations of what we know now, because it obviously is a relatively new subject,” said Fox, an oceanography and earth science teacher at Troy High School in Fullerton, California. “But what they are proposing in this is just ludicrous.”
The booklet states that a scientific consensus–the often cited 97 percent of climate scientists who say humans are the primary cause of climate change–does not exist. It also cites multiple climate change studies pointing out their flaws.
“When someone says there’s no debate and there shouldn’t be a debate, they’re actually denying the scientific method,” said Lennie Jarratt, Heartland’s manager of the Center for Transforming Education. Scientists constantly review and revise their research, he added.
Reactions to the mailings have been mixed, Jarratt said. “A ton of vitriol of people calling us crazy, and teachers requesting more books so they can give them to other teachers.” The materials continue to be sent out with the goal of reaching 300,000 public and private school science teachers as well as college professors across the country, according to Jarratt.
Heartland’s efforts to discredit human-made climate change have caught national attention before, including a 2012 billboard featuring ‘Unabomber’ Ted Kaczynkski, with the words “I still believe in global warming, do you?”
As Fox read through the Heartland booklet, he said it became evident that it contained too much conjecture and that the references were weak.
Many of the citations link to blogs and Heartland’s own website, according to the National Center of Science Education, a nonprofit organization that monitors political interference in science education. The National Center of Science Education and other science education groups have been vocal about the Heartland packet, saying it is inappropriate for the science classroom, since the information is not backed by scientific evidence.
“It’s a nefarious act to try to slip this kind of politically motivated attack on science into the science classroom,” said Ann Reid, National Center of Science Education’s executive director. “It is the same old tired arguments suggesting that the climate science is unsettled that they’ve been pushing for a long time.”
Battle of the states
Understanding science is fundamentally an education issue, said David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, who spent 40 years as a scientist before moving into science education.
With growing political pressure on science teachers, including challenges by state school boards and legislatures to remove science standards on human-made climate change and a presidential administration that has proposed aggressive cuts to environmental protections, teachers — the ones on the front lines — need to know they are supported, Evans said.
In what he sees as an increasingly “anti-science society,” Evans has one key piece of advice for teachers: “Stay focused on the science.”
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Evans sent that message directly to teachers on the National Science Teachers Association website, which led to a response by Heartland’s president and CEO Joseph Bast.
In order to help educators like Fox teach about climate science, new standards — developed in part by the National Science Teachers Association — lay out what students should be expected to know over the course of their K-12 studies.
The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) which were released in 2013, have been adopted by 18 states and Washington D.C. Approximately 60 percent of science teachers in America use a version of these guidelines, according to Ted Willard, National Science Teachers Association’s program director. Under the new standards, students are meant to think like and perform the work of real scientists in a world that relies increasingly on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education to drive its workforce.
While standards at the middle school and high school level specifically discuss human impact on the climate system, Evans said, standards relating to climate science start in elementary school when students study how the oceans and the seasons work.
The new standards, which involve more analytical thinking and teaching students how to form their own arguments and assemble research, will be a real departure from how he has taught science over the last 10 years, Fox said. While it’s impossible for humans to eliminate their carbon footprint, Fox’s new NGSS-based curriculum will ask students to figure out ways to make it smaller.
An argument for the ages over an “apocalypse”
But for now, the political battle over climate science in the classroom seems set to continue.
As long as students learn that there’s another point of view out there, they can decide which seems more accurate, said Dr. Sterling Burnett, research fellow on environmental policy at Heartland.
“If people view the presentation objectively, they’ll see that disaster is not nearing apocalypse and we shouldn’t have to forgo modern standards of living to moderately impact the climate 100 years from now,” Burnett said.
But Reid said such a debate over whether the science is legitimate or not is confusing in a science class since it contradicts the scientific evidence.
“The point is whether you’re a conservative or a liberal or apolitical, I don’t think anyone wants outside groups trying to influence what’s taught in their children’s science classroom,” Reid said.
One way to avoid some of the political pressure is to focus on letting students inform themselves, Fox said. By giving them the tools to learn about politics on their own, students can become informed citizens and ready for the workforce, which is ultimately his goal as a teacher.
Victoria Pasquantonio is education producer at PBS NewsHour. She taught middle and high school social studies and English for many years and heads up NewsHour Extra, NewsHour's teacher resource website.
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