Utah’s science standards will be updated — despite concerns over what students will learn about evolution, climate change and humans being ‘like pigs’

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

Before the state school board gave final approval to a new set of science teaching standards Thursday, several conservative members said they fear Utah students are going to be taught that evolution means that humans “are like pigs” and that “only crazy people” believe God created the earth.

“There’s differences of opinions,” said right-leaning board member Alisa Ellis. “It doesn’t mean someone is unintelligent or uninformed or belongs in a garbage can. But let’s teach both sides of the issues.”

Several science teachers in the audience cringed during the discussion. A few whispered, “That’s just incorrect.”

The debate went on for more than five hours.

Ellis said she disagrees with how the teaching guidelines ask students to prove climate change is caused by humans. Member Jennie Earl asked to strike any language that said the planet is 4.6 billion years old. Lisa Cummins, who represents Herriman and southwest Salt Lake County, said she doesn’t understand why only carbon is studied as a greenhouse gas and not water vapor.

“Galileo was mocked and ridiculed” before he was revered, she added. “If we shut down that discussion, that’s not critical thinking.”

But the state’s science specialist pushed back on nearly every point. “That is verified in many ways,” Ricky Scott said. At other times he added, “That’s very solid science.”

On greenhouse gases, he noted: “This is specifically calling out human effects on climate change, which is carbon.” He called the changes suggested for the evolution standards and those saying humans aren’t related to animals, even including pigs, “scientifically inaccurate.”

In the end, after a grueling back-and-forth, many of the conservative members’ suggestions were not incorporated into the standards. And with the board’s overall vote Thursday — at 11 to 4 — the teaching guidelines have now passed the final hurdle and will next be put in place in public schools across the state.

It’s taken two years to get to this point.

Science education has always been a divisive topic in Utah, where some question if lessons promote too secular a view of the world. Ellis and Cummins have largely led that cause, though this was their last meeting as members will be both stepping down this month.

Most of their concerns have focused on climate change and evolution — which are flashpoints in this red state. They questioned, too, whether the big bang theory is taught “as a real fact” and why kindergartners learn about “extreme weather.” Mostly, they said they wanted to make sure there was wiggle room in the standards for things that aren’t “100% proven.”

Earl suggested: “While there may be 500 scientists who think one way and only one on the other side, it’s allowing the dialogue.”

Board member Linda Hansen ended part of the debate by declaring: “We’re not putting together a religion class. We’re not putting together a history class. We need to just stick to science.”

The new standards will apply to students in kindergarten through fifth grade, with the last changes made in 2010, and in high school, with revisions dating back even further to 2002. (Middle school science guidelines for the state were approved in 2015.)

Many science educators in the state had expressed concern to the board that their classroom learning goals were outdated. Some said they were based on since-disproven material. They pushed for an update and members agreed to review the guidelines in November 2017.

It’s been marked by tense conversations and riotous public meetings since then.

One teacher at Thursday’s meeting scoffed that “significant misconceptions about science and the scientific process were expressed consistently in a group of policymaking adults.”

A Utah writing committee — made up of more than 80 teachers in every grade level and university professors from around the state — spent more than eight months drafting the guidelines that direct classroom lessons. They 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.

Some on the school board have worried new standards would be based too heavily on national platforms instead of Utah values. Ellis has previously said the guidelines would have “little to do with science and a lot to do with what is politically expedient.” She has since criticized that they were developed by looking at the Next Generation of Science Standards; that’s why she and Cummins both said they voted against them Thursday.

“Our students deserve more,” Cummins noted.

Their thoughts were echoed during at least of one of the public hearings where teachers and parents could weigh in. At the March meeting, a dozen people lined up to talk about how the standards were faulty, inaccurate or skewed. A dad said he didn’t want his kids to be taught about chimpanzee DNA. A mom was opposed to the phrases “climate change” or “renewable energy” being included anywhere in the material.

One woman said the material on evolution ignored the Bible. “This is scaremongering at its highest level being taught to our kids,” added resident Pam Allen.

Utah schools already teach about evolution and climate change; and there are not any significant additions or expansions on those subjects in the new standards. The biggest switch is how the state wants science to be taught: moving away from having students memorize and recite facts to having them experiment and think critically about why different natural phenomena occur.

At the meeting Thursday, there were also challenges to teaching students about genetic testing. Many wanted to add in language to have instructors present “counterpoints” and “morals” to those discussions.

"We need to be so careful of what we are doing to young minds,” Ellis said. “They should question every scientific school of thought that they’re presented.”

During the public comment period at the start of Thursday’s meeting, though, several individuals, spoke in support of the standards.

Dawn Monson, representing the Utah Science Teachers Association, said she likes how kids are encouraged to investigate and be curious. “This is truly in the best interest of the students,” she said.

Lisa Covert, a parent, said this “truly excites me. … I just want my child to know how to think.”

The 2020-2021 school year is the soonest the new standards will be in place.