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Science curriculum changes: long overdue or godless instruction?

SALT LAKE CITY — Over objections that national science education standards push a political agenda on global warming and do not include instruction of intelligent design as a counterpoint to teaching evolution, the State School Board voted Thursday to start a process to reconsider science standards for Utah elementary and high schools.

The Utah State Board of Education voted 10-4 to open the standards, which are 7 to 15 years old.

Some board members, such as Linda Hansen and Kathleen Riebe, said Utah students should be taught the latest scientific discoveries.

"We need to stay relevant. Our kids are learning this even faster than we are," Riebe said.

Standards for kindergarten through second grade were adopted in 2010 while standards for students in grades three through five and for high school were adopted in 2002, although Earth science was updated in 2010.

"Due to the age of these standards, some required content is scientifically outdated and irrelevant and the research supporting these standards is also outdated (over 30 years old)," a State School Board document said.

But others, like board member Alisa Ellis, said she is opposed to the national science standards because they are more about advancing political agenda than improving science instruction.

"It's a political thing. Really, these national science standards they have little to do with science and a lot to do with what is politically expedient. … There's a heavy emphasis on global warming. There's a heavy emphasis as evolution as a fact and not as a theory," Ellis said.

She added, "I can't vote to update these standards."

Board member Lisa Cummins agreed.

"I am not in favor of furthering an agenda, but maybe just teaching theory and letting both sides of the argument come out, whether it's intelligent design or the Darwin origin. It's not being taught that way as stated by the public this morning. We need to be cognizant of what our children are being taught contrary to beliefs and discounting them as pseudoscience," Cummins said.

She joined board member Ellis, Scott Nielson and Michelle Boulter in voting against revising the standards.

The vote starts a process, which includes the creation committees to review standards and write possible updates which would be subject to public review and possible adoption by the State School Board. Some of the committee members will be appointed by the president of the Utah Senate and the speaker of the Utah House of Representatives.

Boulter said she fears the process is just window dressing and the decision to use the national standards has already been made.

"I’d like this board just to be honest," she said.

But Hansen said the standards are ultimately the state board's call.

"It’s all up to us. These are our stands," she said.

Earlier in the day, Jessica Dwyer, of the University of Utah's Center for Science and Mathematics Education, urged the board to revise standards for students in elementary and high schools.

Recent changes to the middle school core have resulted in teaching and learning that Dwyer described as "inspiring."

"We're not so much worried about the things that science knows, but we're interested in teaching students how science works and how to behave and act as scientists and know how when they're using discipline-specific thinking as a scientist versus another discipline," Dwyer said.

But others said the proposed changes too closely mirror the Next Generation Science Standards, a series of educational guidelines drafted by national science experts.

"It would have been a complete word for word if we wouldn't have had some people stand up about it," said Vincent Newmeyer, who spoke in opposition.

"The Next Generation Science Standards take a very dogmatic approach to certain key issues in science, Darwinian evolution and global warming. If you come up with a system that's so closely tied to the Next Generation Science Standards, those attitudes will come back in into the classroom and indeed they did," said Newmeyer.

Newmeyer said the office of the State School Board issued a recommended lesson plan on the life and science of Stephen Hawking. Students were supposed to view a video on Hawking and write a report.

The question Hawking addressed was "whether there indeed needed to be a God for the Big Bang to happen or could it could have happened all on its own," Newmeyer said.

"The answer stated by Stephen Hawking in the video was, 'No, no time in which there could have been a God because time came after the Big Bang. There was no time there could have been a God. It happened all on its own,'" he said.

"This is a problem of adopting Next Generation Science Standards or things very close to it," Newmeyer said.

The estimated cost of a science standards revision would be $30,000 for each grade or $300,000 for all grades kindergarten through fifth and nine through 12, the document states.

"With a shift in the standards written as performance expectation a revision in assessment would also be necessary for each grade because current test items would not properly assess the new standards," the documents state.

Test development for changes to the middle school standards cost $660,000 per grade, documents said.

Dwyer said the new middle school standards have been a boon to teacher recruitment and retention because they encourage creativity and motivate good teaching practices.

As a workforce issue, it is important to keep teachers happy because educators with science and engineering backgrounds "could make double or triple what they do in the classroom," Dwyer said.