The state Board of Ed advanced new science standards for the first time in two decades. That could transform how schools teach climate change

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Pennsylvania is on track to adopt new regulations that could reshape science education for the state’s 1.7 million school children, which call on students to learn about global warming and human-caused climate change starting in early elementary school.

Proposed guidelines approved by the state Board of Education last week represent the first comprehensive update to Pennsylvania’s science education standards in nearly two decades.

They’re now subject to public comment as part of the state’s regulatory process. 

They have to get approval from state lawmakers before they can take effect for the 2024-2025 school year – a timeline that the board says will give schools and the Department of Education time to retrain teachers, write curriculum, and update the state’s standardized tests to align with the new standards.

Not to be confused with a curriculum or lesson plan, the statewide educational standards offer a roadmap of what students ought to learn at each grade level. They set expectations that guide instruction and state assessments, while still giving Pennsylvania’s 500 public school districts control over their curricula.

The new proposed standards call on students starting in third grade to receive instruction on how human activity affects natural resources and climate. 

By sixth grade, students are expected to “ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.”

And by the time they’re in high school, they should be able to use data from global climate models to forecast rates of global or regional climate change and its impacts on ecosystems.

Some of the language in Pennsylvania’s draft document mirrors the Next Generation Science Standards, a framework that emphasizes engineering and hands-on learning. That model has been adopted in some form by 44 states and Washington D.C.

The standards that currently guide science education in Pennsylvania are some of the oldest in the nation, educational experts say. They were adopted in 2002 after nearly five years of study and debate, and make no mention of human-caused climate change or global warming. 

Only three other states – Montana, Nebraska, and Ohio – have similar blindspots in their science standards, according to the National Center for Science Education.

In Pennsylvania, the out-of-date standards have allowed students across the state to receive an uneven education in concepts related to climate change, educators told the Capital-Star last year.

Jeff Remington, a middle school science teacher in Palmyra, said the proposed guidelines follow Next Generation principles while tailoring some aspects to reflect “Pennsylvania context.”  

As one of the educators who led the push to modernize the state’s science standards, Remington has said that outdated science education puts Pennsylvania students at a disadvantage in a fast-changing global workforce.   

He’s optimistic that lawmakers will approve the standards when they get the final proposal from the Board of Education. 

The state’s regulatory process requires a standing committee of legislators to review the standards and register their approval or rejection.

“I think standards revision to meet modern workforce development needs is overdue,” Remington told the Capital-Star Friday. “I think lawmakers understand that and will want to do what is best for Pennsylvania’s economic future.”

The state Board of Education launched the push to modernize the state’s science standards roughly a year ago. 

It convened committees that took input from more than 1,000 educators and education experts at more than a dozen public listening sessions.

One of their chief priorities for the new standards was educating students on climate change and human impacts on the environment, according to a report from the consulting firm that led the listening sessions.