K-12 Education

Students to decide themselves on climate change

K-12 guides from University of Iowa will give data, not conclusions

On April 22, timed to coincide with Earth Day, people in 600 cities including Iowa City, above, marched to help show the
On April 22, timed to coincide with Earth Day, people in 600 cities including Iowa City, above, marched to help show the value of science. Although a predominant scientific finding is that humans have been the primary cause of climate change in the last century, new teaching guides being developed at the University of Iowa will not say so outright. It’ll be up to students to use scientific data to reach their own conclusions. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

People who reject predominant scientific findings that humans are the main cause of climate change may be glad at first that new public-school science standards don’t require teachers to teach that in class.

But if inquiry-based teaching guides under development in the Iowa K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative are used, students may reach that conclusion by themselves.

The Climate Science Education Initiative, a project of the University of Iowa’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research and College of Education, will help teachers apply Next Generation Science Standards that do not take the step of telling students what to think about climate change.

The Iowa Board of Education approved standards in August 2015 to establish learning expectations in four scientific domains and students will learn about climate change in each. Thirty-six of the dozens of standards require students to understand the climate system.

As envisioned in the Climate Science Education Initiative, students would not be told the causes of climate change. Instead, they would learn to raise their own questions and study data in search of answers.

“They will look at facts relevant to those questions and draw conclusions that answer their questions,” said Ted Neal, a UI clinical science instructor.

And what if students look at the scientific data and conclude humans have not been the primary cause of climate change this past century?


“That is not possible,” Neal answered. “Because the data is so overwhelming. Out of 920 peer-reviewed journal articles on this issue, zero found that climate change was not anthropogenic.”

Here’s how Kris Kilibarda, the science consultant for the Iowa Department of Education, answered that question in a phone interview:

“The standard requires a student to be able to create a scientific argument, and it doesn’t say what that argument could be.” She said teachers could encourage the student to “grapple with issues and engage in scientific debate with another.” She said local control comes into play.

Although almost all scientists agree on human activity’s impact on climate change, many politicians and teachers still oppose teaching that in school. Those skeptics assert it is only a theory and not a fact.

In the scientific community, such statements erroneously conflate hypotheses, which are tentative but untested ideas or predictions about why something happens, with facts and evidence, which are things that can be observed or measured, and with scientific theory, which is the tested and confirmed explanation for the things that have been observed or measured.

Consider gravity, for example, Neal suggested.

“No matter how many times I hold this pencil in the air and release it, it will drop to the table,” he said, letting the pencil fall repeatedly for emphasis. That falling pencil was an observable fact, and aspects of that fall can be measured.

But here’s what’s missing from the fact of the falling pencil: Why did it fall not float?

Isaac Newton answered that question with a law of universal gravitation, said Scott Spak, a UI assistant professor of environmental and chemical engineering and urban and regional planning. Albert Einstein then developed a more complete and compelling theory to answer that question in 1915 when he developed the general theory of relativity. After research, experiments and tests that sought to disprove it, the theory of gravity became the only valid scientific explanation of the observable fact that things fall if released. That theory remains unquestioned today.


In climate science, the idea that human activity has been the main cause of climate change for the past century goes back several decades and has been subjected to repeated verification tests and experiments. Like the scientific theory that gravity makes things fall instead of float, the human-cause explanation for climate change has held up, earning it the high status of scientific theory. In the scientific community, that question’s been settled since the 1980s and was coming out in peer-reviewed journals, Spak said.

In 2009, 18 scientific associations issued a statement on climate change to Congress saying: “Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.”

Nevertheless, Neal, one of the leaders of the Climate Science Education Initiative, believes that merely explaining to students what scientists say is not as effective as an “inquiry-driven” approach to teaching.

He said “evidence-based best practices” is at the heart of K-12 initiative, which has involved meetings and surveying public school teachers. The initiative and the new science standards are less focused on memorizing facts and more focused on teaching students to apply the scientific process, use and analyze data and then build rational arguments to answer their own questions.

The climate science initiative will provide what Iowa teachers requested in a fall 2016 survey: access to observations and data, help aligning lesson plans and materials with climate science education and the Next Generation Science Standards.

Those standards set expectations in four major scientific domains: physical science, which involves motion, force, and energy; life science, which includes ecosystems, natural selection and organisms; earth and space science; and engineering and technology. Within those domains, “students will engage in investigational learning about climate change,” according to a description of the initiative on the center’s website.

“We’re saying here’s evidence, here’s how you determine if the evidence is valid, and here’s how you develop a scientific argument,” said Kilibarda, the state education department consultant. “You determine what the argument would be. We would never say there’s only one way it can be, but we will say here’s the scientific evidence.”

l Stephen J. Berry is an associate professor emeritus at the University of Iowa and co-founder of The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org.


This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a nonprofit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.

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