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After 18 years, Pa. science education standards could get rewrite

York Catholic plans to create new science labs for its students as part of the school's $8 million capital campaign. Science and STEM education have always been a major focus in YC programs.

A group of educators from throughout the state aims to overhaul some of the country's oldest standards for science education, all while avoiding a protracted political dispute over climate change and evolution.

Pennsylvania's science standards haven't changed since 2002, and repeated efforts in the past to overhaul them stalled during the review process — which involves an independent commission with input from the state Legislature.

The state has different hurdles than some others, as its standards are not approved directly by the Legislature, though that body can veto them if it disapproves.

"We want to make sure we’re pushing the students," said Eric Wilson, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment at Red Lion Area School District.

Wilson is one of two educators from Red Lion on a 60-member committee tasked with the rewrite. 

He and fourth grade teacher Carrie Lankford, who has 10 years of experience in environmental science, were chosen out of more than 200 applicants by the state Board of Education.

This summer's review will include a look at the Next Generation Science Standards — a 2013 effort at national standards developed by 26 states out of a framework from the National Research Council.

Next Generation standards focus on scientific inquiry and "cross-cutting" concepts that stretch across academic disciplines.

"It’s really the way of thinking, " Wilson said, noting that knowing how to think like a scientist is useful throughout the workforce. 

Christine Royce, professor of science education at Shippensburg University, said observation, asking questions, collecting information and analyzing it are all scientific practices that can be applied to any situation.

States with Republican-controlled legislatures, such as Wyoming and Oklahoma, were among the first to reject the Next Generation standards. But since then, all but six states, including Pennsylvania, have accepted some version of them.

In Pennsylvania, the state Legislature could stall the initiative with a bill to block the implementation of the standards. But overcoming a veto by Gov. Tom Wolf, who has backed overhauling the standards, would prove a more difficult challenge.  

Florida, North Carolina, Idaho, Texas and Virginia also have set their own standards without Next Generation input.

The 2009 and 2010 draft standards for Pennsylvania failed after critics pointed out certain sections about the nature of scientific inquiry had been removed. 

A former president of the National Science Teaching Association and a member of an 18-member steering committee to review the standards this summer, Royce said some districts, however, voluntarily adopted them.

Districts in the south and east of Pennsylvania have actually been using the Next Generation standards.

Among the core content in those standards is an acknowledgement that climate change is caused by human behavior — a hot button issue that tends to be greeted with skepticism among conservatives.

More:Despite pandemic, young climate activists have ‘so much to do’

Pennsylvania's standards have languished untouched since 2002, making them among the oldest in the country, and only briefly touch on climate change. 

Though the state's current standards do include these things, said Leigh Foy, a York Suburban High School science teacher who leads a climate science workshop for educators, they do not go in depth.

Dr. Greg Foy, left, and his wife Leigh Foy discuss their upcoming climate change workshop during an interview at their home in Spring Garden Township, Thursday, June 20, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Just last year, Foy had to tackle misinformation over a publication from the Heartland Institute, a conservative organization linked to the oil industry, claiming climate change was up for debate.

More:York teachers tackle misinformation, skepticism about climate change

More:West York OKs textbook after striking it over climate change

More recently, a West York Area school board member spoke out against a geography textbook, accusing its authors of indoctrinating students about climate change and suppressing critical thinking.

The board voted against approving the textbook before reversing that decision in a second vote.

Climate change remains a controversial topic in Pennsylvania's GOP-run Legislature. Some committees have invited climate change deniers to testify.

But the tides have been changing in several states, where climate change has become a larger part of the curriculum.

Idaho's state Senate Education Committee recently approved new science standards including teachings on climate change, despite earlier pushback among conservatives in the state House. Before that, its last update of science standards was in 2001.

The New Jersey State Board of Education on June 3 adopted revisions to its learning standards that include climate change, which that state's first lady, Tammy Murphy, called a symbol of a partnership between generations.

"Decades of short-sighted decision-making has fueled this crisis and now we must do all we can to help our children solve it," she said in a news release.

Oklahoma's state Board of Education also approved standards that include human impact on the environment, climate change and evolution in May.

The National Science Teaching Association says 18 measures to support climate education in public schools in 10 states have been active in statehouses so far in 2020. 

As far as the Next Generation standards go, “I think Pennsylvania would probably lean more towards an adaptation,” Royce said.

The state’s standards have always been broken into two separate standards — one dealing with environment and one with technology. And these components are less fleshed out in the Next Generation standards.

Committees will meet in the last three weeks of June over six full days virtually to re-tool the standards.