What Utah kids learn about science, including climate change and evolution, is up for debate with draft of new school standards

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eleventh graders make glass slides and count Paramecium through microscopes as part of a science competition in biology class on Wednesday, October 26, 2016 at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education.

Utah parents and teachers can comment on what students should learn about science — including topics like evolution and global warming that are divisive in this red state — after Thursday’s release of a draft of new instructional standards.

The Utah Board of Education voted to unveil the classroom guidelines for a 90-day public review after months of debate among members who disagreed over whether the new standards — based largely on what’s accepted nationwide — go too far in talking about human impact on the climate, rely “too much on theory and not fact,” or promote too secular a view of the world.

“I am not in support of the move toward national science standards,” said board member Alisa Ellis, who represents Heber City. She has been the staunchest opponent of the updates; still, the board approved releasing them to the public unanimously.

The standards will apply to students in kindergarten through fifth grade, with the last changes made in 2010, and in high school, with the last revisions made in 2002. (Middle school science guidelines for the state were approved in 2015 and set the stage for much of the debate over goals.)

Utah science educators largely drove the board to make the latest updates, pleading to members for more than a year, saying that their classroom learning goals were outdated and sometimes based on since-disproven material.

“It didn’t really prepare kids for what science is, to discover and learn,” said Ricky Scott, a science specialist with the Utah Office of Education. “We really want to build thinkers and students who can reason through what’s happening in the world today.”

Despite concerns from Ellis and others about what the new standards might include, most of the actual content and sections of study haven’t changed besides some small factual updates. Utah schools already teach about climate change and evolution. Those areas don’t have any significant additions or expansions in the new standards. In fact, they actually mention “evolution” four times fewer than the previous version and “climate” as it relates to global warming only one time more.

Ellis said in November 2017, when the board of education voted to review the guidelines, that she was worried the new standards would have “little to do with science and a lot to do with what is politically expedient” with a “heavy emphasis on evolution as a fact and not a theory” and too much discussion of climate.

“But the content foundation of these [in the new guidelines] is no different than the current standards, except for some new science,” Scott said.

Instead, the biggest change is how the state wants science to be taught: switching from having students memorize and recite facts to having them experiment and think critically about why different natural phenomena occur.

The old standards required students to sit behind a book, Scott said, and “completely ignored or forgot about the doing part of science.” Now, students will be encouraged to apply what they learn by doing more labs and building models and investigating.

“Instead of just having a kid memorize the phases of the moon, we’d rather have them understand the forces in play,” he added.

The writing committee that drafted the standards, made up of more than 80 teachers in every grade level and university professors from around the state, also included a large focus on engineering for the first time in elementary and high schools.

Additionally, for kindergarten through second grade, there will be extra lessons on pollination and the impact of sunlight on Earth. And third through fifth grade will see more information on magnets and protecting Earth’s resources.

High school students have four sections of study: biology, chemistry, physics, and earth and space science. Changes includes adding more standards for geology and genetic engineering.

The instructional guidelines for all grades were drafted by looking at other states and the Next Generation of Science Standards, a series of education benchmarks developed by a consortium of national experts. The writing committee spent March to late October pulling together the new standards for Utah.

“I welcome this,” said newly elected board member Jennie Earl, who represents Hyrum. “I think this is great.”

Ellis added, too, that “it’s time for public input.”

The board voted Thursday without much debate to release the draft guidelines to move the process forward — but still with time to revise — with the 90-day review period running through April 11. There will be six public hearings starting in January and going through March where parents and teachers can talk about changes they’d like to see, as well. They can also express any concerns in a survey at www.surveymonkey.com/r/UTSEEd90DayReview.

Three of those meetings will likely be held online, and three will be in-person at public buildings in Cedar City, Brigham City and American Fork. The exact times and places have not yet been decided but will be posted soon at www.schools.utah.gov.

The public review for science comes at the end of a similar review of health standards and sex education, which has been a highly contentious process.

In both, the board will consider comments for further rewrites before final approval, which is months away. The 2020-2021 school year is the soonest the new standards would be in place.

Scott said: “There will still be some remaking and tweaking before then.”