Climate change education remains difficult for Arizona science teachers

Photo by Dulcey Lima

Posted with permission from Inside Tucson Business. Original Story can be found here.

By Joe Giddens

The quality of climate change education in Arizona’s classrooms received a middling grade from the National Center for Science Education’s new review of the nation’s science standards. While the state’s science curriculum was updated in 2018, Arizona bears scars of the politicization of science.

“While it is disappointing to be given a ‘C’ grade … the Arizona Department of Education continues to prioritize climate change education within our science standards,” said ADE spokeswoman Morgan Dick.

Science standards are what students should know by the end of the school year, however, Arizona leaves specific curriculum to the school districts.

The report tied Arizona with Mississippi and Montana, meanwhile six states received an overall failing grade, the largest being Texas.

According to the report, Arizona had the widest divergence of scores from reviewers: Arizona earned weak marks overall for its treatment of the reality, cause and severity of climate change, but its treatment of solutions to the climate crisis was even worse.

The study was carried out by three PhD scientists who asked four main questions of every state’s science standards: “It’s real” (that climate change is happening), “It’s us” (that human emissions are responsible), “It’s bad” (that climate change will impact us) and “Hope” (that it’s possible to mitigate and adapt to it).

“I was impressed that Arizona standards even mentioned fossil fuels contributing to climate change,” NCSE reviewer Casey Williams said. ”Some of the standards across the United States didn’t even mention climate change, or that fossil fuels were directly related to the majority of climate change that we’ve seen since the Industrial Revolution.”

Arizona’s science standards were updated in 2018, a move that was contentious due to the teaching of evolution and climate change. Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas at one point proposed replacing Arizona’s academic standards with those from Hillsdale College, a private Christian institution.

According to Sara Torres, executive director of the Arizona Science Teachers Association, several demands were placed by Douglas’s leadership during the 2018 update, chief among them was that Arizona couldn’t use the Next Generation Science Standards. The NGSS is a set of national science guidelines considered to be a high bar for science education. All states that adopted it scored higher than Arizona in NCSE’s report.

According to Tempe High School science teacher Amber Struthers, a main factor in the development of the standards was simply what they thought would be approved by the Douglas administration.

“We knew we wanted climate change in there (and) we know that it’s important for our students to be scientifically literate,” Torres said. “But we also needed to make sure that we got standards that got approved otherwise we were going to be stuck with our 2004 standards.”

The NCSE report noted a sense of tension in Arizona’s science standards: “Between educators … who want to teach science relevant to their students and powerful interests who want to point to wording that seems to embrace teaching climate change … but not really admit to the reality of climate change.”

Much of Arizona’s grade came down to the language used in the standards. One of his concerns is often the wording that is ambiguous, such as the use of how fossil fuels “contributes to global warming and climate change” as opposed to stating that those fuels are the main driver of current warming.

Williams expressed concern over many elementary-level teachers entering the classroom without formal education in climate science language.

One of the programs in place to educate the educators about topics such as climate change is The STEMAZing Project in Pima County. For director DaNel Hogan, many of the same confusions about climate science held by the general public are shared by educators entering the field.

Hogan’s view is that the public owes a huge debt to Torres and the Arizona Science Teachers Association for the fact that climate change was even put in the 2018 standards.

“It’s frustrating enough that we didn’t adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, which would have made life easier for teachers, but we have strong standards,” Hogan said. “We need a massive amount of professional development for educators related to these new science standards.”

Arizona’s heat from this record-breaking year and future temperature projections are not the only systems being pushed towards collapse. The stress on educators from the pandemic is compounded by the state being near the bottom of education funding, according to Hogan.

For Torres, one way Arizona can improve its climate education and better address the issue of “hope” in the NCSE’s report is to have more engineering opportunities within the standards. Torres said states in the report having more engineering standards in their curriculum.

“Hopefully we’re not going to wait 14 years for our next group of standards, and the State Department has said that we will review them every five to six years,” she said.

Torres also pointed out a new statewide assessment covering Earth and Space Science which includes climate and climate change in the Spring of 2022 being field tested this year as a positive step for teachers.