‘We’re ready for some change’: Pa. educators want to see climate change included in new Pa. science standards

Educators submit comments in a group activity on Tuesday, during a Department of Education stakeholder event for its science standards review. Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison.

When more than 100 educators and school administrators showed up in suburban Harrisburg on Tuesday to talk about science education in Pennsylvania, they didn’t get to leave without a homework assignment. 

The instructions: Go home, jot down what they’d learned, and give their state legislators a call. 

“The General Assembly is invited to take part in this process, and if they don’t show up, we’ll make sure we do,” educational consultant Beth Ratway told the crowd of educators, school administrators and business leaders, who had spent three hours sharing their hopes and concerns about science education in Pennsylvania.   

The session was one of 13 that the Department of Education will host this spring to collect public input as a committee drafts new science education standards for the Commonwealth. 

Tempers warming: Will a debate over climate change stall a long-overdue update of Pa.’s science standards?

It’s been more than 20 years since Pennsylvania last took a comprehensive look at the laws that guide science education and standardized testing in Pennsylvania. 

Many of Pennsylvania’s science educators welcome the opportunity to revamp the standards, saying Tuesday that the guidelines governing their work are out-of-touch with current technology and environmental science research. 

During a series of group-based workshops and discussion sessions, the educators — who hailed from K-12 classrooms, as well as colleges and university — outlined their visions for science education in the Commonwealth. 

Many said that students should emerge from high school ready to take on jobs in STEM fields. Others said that science classes should help students become smarter consumers of news, encourage them to recycle, or inspire them to volunteer with local conservation organizations.

In a surprise appearance that capped off the event, Gov. Tom Wolf stressed the high stakes of the work ahead, calling science education “the foundation of a strong workforce [that] will help the state to compete in the global economy.” 

But many educators agreed that all their efforts to shape science education in Pennsylvania could be moot if the General Assembly doesn’t adopt new standards, which may not be released for at least a year.

“We can sit here and have all the rich conversation we want, but if [lawmakers] don’t approve it …” Lynn Aponick, a high school science teacher at Eastern Lancaster School District, said, finishing her sentence with a shrug. 

Aponick and other educators told the Capital-Star on Tuesday they want the new science standards to reflect scientific consensus on climate change.

The state’s current standards make no mention of the topic, which means some students may never learn in school how human carbon emissions are causing higher temperatures and sea levels to rise. 

Many teachers know, however, that mandating climate change education could be a tough sell to Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled General Assembly. 

They say that political resistance is one reason that Pennsylvania never adopted the academic standards drafted by the Department of Education in 2009, which call for children to learn, starting in the third grade, about human impacts on the environment and natural resource consumption.

The Department of Education has published those standards on its website for schools to follow voluntarily as they craft science curricula. 

But Gina Mason, who teaches environmental science at Palmyra Middle School in Lebanon County, said they’re already outdated, thanks to recent advancements in renewable energy technology. 

Mason and others hope that the opportunity to revamp science standards will offer Pennsylvania another opportunity to offer stricter guidance on what schools should teach about climate change. 

Lori Brown, a sixth grade science teacher at Cedar Crest Middle School in Lebanon County, said she sneaks in lessons about climate change based on current events. But she thinks it should be emphasized throughout the school year, across all grade levels. 

“It definitely needs to be addressed, and I think it deserves its own spotlight,” Brown said. “We’re ready for some change.”

Map: Pa. education officials hit the road to hear input on new science standards