What will the incoming administration mean for science education in the United States? In particular, what impact might Betsy DeVos, the pick for secretary of the Department of Education, have on what is taught in our nation’s science classrooms?
A few loud voices dismissing science can be enough to intimidate teachers into diluting their treatment of evolution and climate change, permanently short-changing a generation of science learners.
DeVos is likely to take a quieter approach. She hasn’t taken strong positions on either evolution or climate change, and likely won’t focus on them as curriculum issues. But if her views on school choice are implemented, even more students may be miseducated. DeVos favors letting parents use publicly funded vouchers to send their children to private and religious schools where, in contrast to public schools, creationism can be taught without violating the constitutional guarantee of the separation of church and state.
During Senate hearings Tuesday on DeVos’s nomination, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) asked point-blank if a DeVos-led Department of Education would side with students or with purveyors of junk science. She evaded answering — but conspicuously used the “critical thinking” catchphrase beloved by creationists and climate change deniers alike.
Others in the Trump administration have been more outspoken challengers of climate change and evolution.
During the campaign for president, Donald Trump repeatedly called climate change a hoax. His recent claim that “no one really knows” is a scant improvement.
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
While evolution was not as much in the headlines during the campaign, Vice President-elect Mike Pence once saw fit to denounce evolution on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Support for teachers
The federal Department of Education has little power over what teachers are required to cover. Science education standards are set at the state level. Evolution is generally integrated into current standards and textbooks, and climate change — a relative newcomer to American science education — is increasingly included in them.
But just including evolution and climate change in standards isn’t enough. Teachers must feel confident when presenting the material in their classrooms. Unfortunately, they often don’t. Only 54 percent of American science teachers teach climate change forthrightly, while only 28 percent do the same for evolution.
The rest? Some deny the science outright and present climate change denial or creationism. Others compromise by skipping the topic, omitting key elements, or downplaying the solidity of the evidence.
Among the most powerful reasons for their reticence is teachers’ perceptions of the attitudes toward these socially contentious topics in the communities where they teach. Nationally, only about two-thirds of Americans accept that human activities are responsible for recent climate change, and a similar percentage accept that human beings have evolved over time.
The consensus among scientists on those two topics, though, is nearly universal. There is, in truth, no scientific debate: Evolution and climate change are both supported by mountains of fully vetted evidence amassed over decades by multiple scientific disciplines.
Although most science teachers accept the established science, many of them live and work in places where they fear that the majority of their community does not. It takes courage to tackle forthrightly topics that may provoke community disapproval or even hostility.
Put yourself in a teacher’s shoes. You’ve just begun a lesson on, say, how atmospheric carbon dioxide contributes to Earth’s temperature. This is straightforward physics — not a matter of opinion or debate.
Then one of your students raises a hand to protest, “But the president says that no one really knows whether climate change is real!” What would you do?
“Make lemonade from lemons” is my advice to science teachers in such situations. Invite students to think like scientists by asking questions such as “How could we figure out whether our climate is changing?” or “What kind of evidence should we gather?”
Students would quickly learn that just about any kind of evidence they might name has already been collected and they can examine the data for themselves — at the websites of NASA and NOAA, at least for the time being.
Not only are students who do this kind of exploration more likely to be convinced about the reality of climate change, they will also come away with an invaluable lesson in how science works and how they can put scientific thinking to work in their own lives.
Most parents, whether they live in blue or red states, want their children to get a good science education. They know it can open up a world of better jobs and a more secure future. That’s why we and our colleagues at the National Center for Science Education work hard to let teachers know that the scientific community, and the majority of people in their communities, will have their backs when they teach the science without compromise.
Science teachers will find their jobs more challenging if our political leaders dismiss scientific findings and question the motives of scientists and research agencies. Sadly, then, we predict that NCSE will be busy during the new administration.
During the Trump years, it will be up to all of us to let science teachers know that we recognize, support, and applaud them for the crucial and difficult role they play in equipping the next generation to understand the power of scientific thinking.
Ann Reid is the executive director and Glenn Branch is the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education.