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Illustration by Richard Cowdray

Change in the weather

Science | Upcoming national science standards squelch alternate views on climate and Darwinism

Issue: "School choice," Aug. 25, 2012

As kindergartners and high-school students return to public schools this fall, a team of 41 writers will be busy editing national curriculum standards that, as early as next year, could change how science teachers instruct their classes. The so-called "Next Generation Science Standards," which all 50 states will have the option of adopting or not, are intended to provide a universal framework for science education. They explicitly emphasize Darwinism and climate change.

Based on recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences, the standards reflect consensus (that is, majority) views. For instance, according to an 87-page draft the writing team presented for public comment in May, middle-school students are supposed to learn "how human activities significantly impact the geosphere, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, the biosphere, and global temperatures," such as by the "release of greenhouse gases." They're supposed to learn about the effects of "increases in human population," and about "evidence" supporting the Big Bang.

High-school students will be taught that fossil and DNA discoveries support common ancestry, and that one species can evolve into two. Not only will they learn that human activities have increased "the frequency and intensity" of natural hazards like "floods, droughts, forest fires, [and] landslides," they'll study the "feasibility of geoengineering" projects to slow global climate change.

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Even young students will learn principals of environmentalism. Fifth-graders will learn about "conducting an energy audit and developing a plan to reduce energy use." Kindergartners will learn how human activity like "cutting trees for lumber and paper products" impacts animal habitats.

Teaching about conservation and natural selection within a species has merit, but teaching uncritically the theoretical aspects of evolution and man-made climate change doesn't sit well with many teachers and parents: A 2008 poll found that only a quarter of public high-school biology teachers claim to be strong advocates of Darwinism, and in an online poll last year, half of science teachers said they faced skepticism about climate change teaching from parents.

Some states are skeptical, too. Officials from Texas, Virginia, and South Carolina suggested they won't adopt the new science standards, which are likely to be finished early next year. (Texas adopted state standards in 2009 requiring students to learn the strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory.)

But elsewhere, 26 states already have representatives on the Next Generation standards writing team. These states and others are likely to replace their own science standards with the national ones-leaving teachers and parents with little room to be skeptical.

Jellyfish copycat

Caltech and Harvard University

Four scientists reported they made a synthetic "jellyfish" that swims freely, propelling itself through a salty fluid with only the prodding of an electrical current. The centimeter-wide creation, named a medusoid, is composed of a layer of rat heart muscle cells embedded on flexible silicone rubber. When the scientists apply electric pulses to the fluid suspending the medusoid, it expands and contracts like a real jellyfish.

The bioengineered device isn't alive, though: It can't eat, reproduce, or swim in any particular direction. Its creators, who reported their work in Nature Biotechnology, said they want to create more sophisticated medusoids using human heart cells. An ultimate goal of such experiments is learning how to design replacement valves for human hearts. - Daniel James Devine

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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