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In Idaho, educators try to figure out how to teach about human-caused climate change in a state where the concept has been challenged by politicians

click to enlarge Education officials in Idaho are stuck "trying to navigate a rock and a hard place" when it comes to climate change, says one expert.
  • Education officials in Idaho are stuck "trying to navigate a rock and a hard place" when it comes to climate change, says one expert.

When Lake City High School science teacher Jamie Esler stepped in front of members of the Idaho State Department of Education in April, he was unwavering in his support for the state science standards on climate change that lawmakers had recently cut. If the legislature would approve all other science standards, he argued, they had to accept those relating to climate change as well.

"Or else you may as well throw them all out," Esler said. "We may as well throw out science education entirely. But we can't be picky — it undermines the entire process."

The local science teachers, parents and students in the meeting room at the Coeur d'Alene Resort that day were united. One by one, around two dozen people stepped up to the microphone, urging the the state to keep the science standards on climate change. It was the last of six public hearings that the Department of Education would hold looking for feedback on how to rewrite climate change standards. In more than a thousand written or verbal comments, the message was clear: Students need to learn that humans play a major role in climate change.

For some in the Idaho legislature, however, it's not so clear.

When the House Education Committee in February approved all science standards except five paragraphs related to climate change, Idaho became the first state where lawmakers successfully removed the teaching of climate science from curriculum requirements, according to the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that advocates for teaching climate change in schools. Idaho EdNews reported that Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, felt the standards did not cover "both sides of the debate," which is why he pushed the committee to reject them. In other news reports, he said he thought the standards were too negative, and didn't talk about what humans can do to mitigate negative effects on the climate. (Syme did not respond to Inlander requests for comment.)

In Idaho — a state where many lawmakers and parents do not accept the scientific consensus that humans play a role in climate change — education officials are now searching for a way to maintain scientific integrity in the classroom while appeasing everyone else.

After addressing the state Department of Education in April, Esler was part of a state committee that convened in May to find a way to do exactly that. The committee released revised standards that soften some of the language around human-caused climate change, in hopes that lawmakers approve the changes, or else they might go back to the drawing board.

"There is a lot riding on this," Esler tells the Inlander. "I can't emphasize that enough."

SETTING THE STANDARD

Across the nation, states with Republican-led legislatures are attempting to influence how climate change is taught in schools, says Glenn Branch, deputy director for the National Center for Science Education.

A total of 19 states, including Washington, have adopted what are called Next Generation Science Standards, which guide curricula in physical, life, earth and space sciences along with engineering and technology. The standards include language about humans having an effect on rising global temperatures through the burning of fossil fuels.

But other states, like Idaho, have not adopted those standards. And some approved similar standards that take out some language on climate change.

States like Alabama and Indiana, for example, passed resolutions supporting "diverse" views on climate change and evolution. The state boards of education in Texas and West Virginia "tinkered" with standards related to climate change, creating more watered-down versions of climate change standards, Branch says.

What makes the changes to Idaho's state standards different, Branch says, is that it's the only state where the legislature, not the state board of education, has successfully blocked curricula on climate change — even if it was only temporary.

"It sends a really bad message to science teachers, that the legislature is very skeptical of very firm science on climate change," Branch says.

In Idaho, 72 percent of residents believe in climate change, according to Boise State University's 2017 Idaho Public Policy Survey. A different survey by Yale University says that 65 percent of Idahoans think global warming is happening, five percent lower than the national average. And many who believe climate change is happening may not believe humans are causing it. Both numbers, however, are far less than the percentage of scientists who agree humans are causing global warming — around 97 percent, according to several studies.

In May, a science committee comprised of educators from around Idaho came up with revisions to the five paragraphs from the old science standards that the legislature nixed. Lawmakers, the committee was told, wanted a more positive tone, but the committee still had to take into account that less than 1 percent of public comments wanted any change to the standards at all.

Branch, who looked at a comparison of the old standards and the revisions, says the revisions made it clear that they were "trying to navigate a rock and a hard place." He says some of the language was watered down, and more vague. In particular, one sentence that said "emphasis is on the major role that human activities play in causing the rise in global temperatures" was omitted altogether. On the other hand, Branch said the rest of the standards do not compromise the fact that human activity is responsible for climate change.

John Abatzoglou, a climatologist and professor at University of Idaho, says he is satisfied overall with the revisions, while realizing the committee had to tone things down in a few places.

"The best thing we can do is to be informed on the topic and come to our own decisions based on the best available science," Abatzoglou says.

IN THE CLASSROOM

State standards don't dictate everything taught in a classroom, only the minimum. Teachers can go above and beyond the standards. But that doesn't mean they don't matter, Esler says.

"Statewide assessments will be based on these standards," he says. "So having climate change and the impact on the environment as part of what essentially must be taught in the state standards is pretty monumental."

Equally as important, says Abatzoglou, is how much of a background teachers have in climate science. Climate science is an integrated science, blending various scientific subjects. Colleges with teaching programs, he says, should encourage more teachers to take courses on climate change. Without more training and guidance, teachers may be able to get away with teaching an hour or two on the subject, he says.

The other reason is consistency. One teacher in Coeur d'Alene, who gave feedback to the Department of Education, said that while she can teach what she needs to teach based on science, and the consensus of the scientific community, she can't guarantee that her daughters and their peers are taught the way throughout school without language in the standards.

Scott Cook, Idaho State Department of Education director of academic services, support and professional development, says he feels the committee maintained the scientific integrity of the original standards. Nothing was wrong with the old ones, he says, but the revised curriculum combines more solutions with the problem.

Later this year, the Idaho State Board of Education will be presented with the standards before they are taken to the legislature for review in 2018. There's still the possibility that lawmakers will call for another review then.

Esler, who originally advocated to keep the old standards before joining the committee tasked with crafting new ones, supports what the committee came up with, given the situation.

But when asked if he is optimistic that the legislature will adopt the climate change standards, based on scientific consensus, he pauses.

"I think that's the toughest question you've asked me yet," Esler says, assessing his own optimisim. "I feel like, I have to be."♦

wilsonc@inlander.com

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