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Science Standards Draw Climate Change Debate Back Into Wyo. Classrooms


So far 13 states have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards. It's a framework that would do for science education what the Common Core does for English and math. But the standards are controversial in some states because of what they say about climate change. In Wyoming, where almost all economic activity is tied to energy production, it's particularly touchy. Wyoming Public Radio's Aaron Schrank reports.

AARON SCHRANK, BYLINE: When you talk to someone who teaches people how to teach science about climate change, they'll probably say something like this.

ANA HOUSEAL: The jury is not out on climate change. There isn't a debate. We know it's happening. We know we're contributing to it.

SCHRANK: That's Ana Houseal with the University of Wyoming's Science and Mathematics Teaching Center.

HOUSEAL: Ninety-seven percent of the scientific community says that there's good evidence demonstrating that we're doing this.

SCHRANK: But when you talk to people who actually teach science to kids in the classroom, you might hear something different.

TONI HLADKY: If you are talking about global warming, you know, try to, as much as possible, present, like, both sides of the story to find a balance.

SCHRANK: Toni Hladky is a science teacher Campbell County High School in Wyoming's coal country. The region produces more than 40 percent of the nation's coal, and that coal is responsible for 13 percent of the country's total carbon dioxide emissions. Hladky says most of her students have connections to the energy industry.

HLADKY: A lot of these kids, that's their livelihood. Their parents work in the industry, so they have strong opinions on that. But we have strong opinions from both sides, so we can get some good debate.

SCHRANK: If adopted here, the Next Generation Science Standards would put some of this false balance to rest. They say students should learn about climate change and understand how human activity contributes to it. But some Wyoming lawmakers don't like that. Last year, former Republican Representative Matt Teeters authored a budget footnote that barred the state from even considering the standards.

MATT TEETERS: The way that climate change was presented through those standards, I believe it was overemphasized. Our students need to learn about climate change, but I think it should be all held in context.

SCHRANK: Wyoming lawmakers say teaching climate science could hurt the state's energy economy. The country's number two coal state, West Virginia, first adopted the standards only after altering what they said about climate change. In Wyoming, where lawmakers recently passed a bill to put the standards back on the table, there's a push to make a similar move. Again, former Representative Teeters.

TEETERS: Those standards do not push Wyoming students to where we want them to be. What we really need in Wyoming is our own set of standards.

SCHRANK: The Next Generation Science Standards were developed by 26 states and national science education groups. Bryan Aivazian is a science teacher in Natrona County High School in Wyoming. He says that these standards represent a huge step forward in how science is taught.

BRYAN AIVAZIAN: We want students to be able to show that they can do something with that information. Can they think critically? Can they apply that to situations in their life in the real world?

SCHRANK: That means more experimentation, using the scientific method. Aivazian says kids will be able to draw their own conclusions based on evidence.

AIVAZIAN: I'll never tell my kids what to think. I just want to help them to learn how to think.

SCHRANK: And that's especially important for a topic like climate change, which kids hear so much about outside the classroom. Kids like Dylan Thompson (ph), a high school freshman from the city of Casper, Wyo., nicknamed the oil city.

DYLAN THOMPSON: Kids that are interested in climate change just have to do their own, like, self-research at home on the Internet. And sometimes you can find false information on the Internet. And I know that school teaching about climate change would really cut down on that.

SCHRANK: The scientific consensus for human-driven climate change is clear. What's unclear is whether students will hear that information in the classroom or will have to find it elsewhere. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Schrank in Laramie, Wyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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