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Update: Global warming topic barely mentioned in Minnesota’s proposed science standards

A prominent U of M scientist says the omission of global science is a fundamental flaw in the state’s proposed K-12 guidelines.

Read the news — from the popular press to the specialized journals — and you’ll find global warming a leading science topic.

But read the proposed new science standards for Minnesota students, and the topic barely comes up. The words greenhouse effect, for example, appear only twice in the latest 42-page draft — not as benchmarks for student learning but as optional examples for science studies.

Lawrence Rudnick, a prominent University of Minnesota astronomer, says the proposed standards are fundamentally flawed in that they fail to address one of the most pressing science issues of our time. So serious is the omission, he says, that the state education department should halt the nearly completed process of revising the standards.

I believe that these standards will serve Minnesota very poorly, and leave our students woefully unprepared for the challenges they will face as future citizens,” Rudnick said Monday in a letter to Education Commissioner Alice Seagren. “I urge you to immediately suspend the current process leading to administrative rulemaking.”     

As drafted, the standards “will ill-equip our children for taking on the responsibilities required of them as the next generation of local and global decision-makers,” Rudnick said.

But Karen Klinzing disagrees. She is assistant education commissioner in the office of Academic Excellence and Innovations.

“No doubt about it,” Klinzing said when I asked her if the standards adequately address the global factors involved in warming.

National experts recommended that the topic be integrated within various elements of the standards rather than addressed as a stand-alone feature, she said.

Standards and benchmarks
The standards at issue set expectations for achievement in science for Minnesota’s K-12 students. Along with related benchmarks, they also define the requirements for credit and graduation in high school. State law requires that science tests given in grades 5, 8 and high school be aligned with the standards.

More than a year ago, the state Department of Education assembled a committee of scientists, teachers, parents and others to revise standards that had been developed in 2003. Many on the committee have volunteered the equivalent of a month’s time for the project, spread out over the past year.

Their work was informed by national expertise, including standards outlined by the National Academy of Science. Earlier drafts were reviewed by national experts in science and engineering as well as local groups. And they were made available for public comment.

A new draft of the standards should be posted on the Education Department’s website during the third week of April, Klinzing said, and public comment will continue to be considered for about two weeks beyond that. Once the revised standards are adopted, school districts must implement them no later than the 2011-2012 school year. The next revision will not be due until the 2017-18 school year.

Strong on evolution
Some I talked with at the beginning of the process were bracing for a battle on the issue of evolution. If the fight came, it’s barely reflected in the standards. Evolution, as the subject is supported by most scientists, is a sturdy thread running through the standards for studies of living systems.

“The standards make a strong statement that the state of Minnesota understands the importance of evolutionary theory in biology,” said Dana Davis, a microbiology professor at the University of Minnesota who served on the standards committee.

A noteworthy change this year is enhanced emphasis on engineering design processes and technology literacy. Another change is that specific high-school chemistry and physics standards are written to define a requirement that students graduating in 2015 complete at least one credit in one of those subjects.

The new document also reflects environmental literacy standards developed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Klinzing said.

The standards do refer to global warming. For example, one benchmark for upper grade students is: “Explain how human activity and natural processes are altering the hydrosphere, biosphere, lithosphere and atmosphere, including pollution, topography and climate.” An offered example is “Active volcanoes and the burning of fossil fuels contribute to the greenhouse effect.”

Full concept missing
Rudnick’s point is that global warming in general and the greenhouse effect in particular deserve to be more than optional examples.

“They don’t have the concepts in there,” Rudnick said in a telephone interview. “There are pieces of the concepts, but no coherent framework.”

The standards are organized in four major strands: the nature of science and engineering, physical science, earth and space science, and life science. Each strand covers related material in several sub-strands.  

No strand speaks directly to the relatively new studies of global science — looking at how the Earth’s land surfaces, atmosphere, water systems and living organisms interact with one another.

Beyond warming, there are other important reasons to study the major global systems, including species extinction and water shortages, Rudnick said.

“There are some hints in the standards that these systems are interacting,” Rudnick said. “But it doesn’t come as a prime focus.”

Think of Rudnick’s point in terms of the polar ice caps, for example. Scientists today are putting enormous effort into studying melting patterns and how they relate to ocean currents and other aspects of systems on a global scale.

“I don’t think the word polar is in the standards,” Rudnick said. “How could you miss that? … Pieces of the concepts are there, but students won’t get the big picture, and that was the whole purpose of the standards to organize things into coherent threads.”

Of course, global warming has been a political flashpoint. But Rudnick doesn’t blame ideology for the short shrift he thinks the subject gets in the standards. Instead, he looks to the process in which traditional science disciplines — physics, chemistry, biology, etc. — all have seats at the table and take responsibility for the separate areas.

“They talk about the relationships (of the various disciplines on a global scale) but it’s not a prime focus because it’s not where people came from,” Rudnick said. “But today, anybody trying to understand the Earth would start by saying you have several major systems interacting with each other. … This is something that has emerged in the last 10 to 20 years.”

Dana, the microbiologist, agreed that the scientific focus on global systems “is a fairly new concept.” While it isn’t addressed as a stand-alone element of the standards, many of the subjects it involves are covered at some level, he said. For example, there is a section devoted to the water cycle.

The committee was under a mandate to focus on “what every student who graduates in the state of Minnesota has to know,” he said.

Clearly, the difference between Rudnick and those who drafted the standards is whether the new studies of global systems fall within that have-to-know sphere.

Update: Education department provides climate-change examples

In response to my request for specific examples of how the new science standards speak to global systems and climate change, the Minnesota Department of Education provided the following excerpts from its proposed standards. (I removed some coding which could be confusing out of the context of the full document):

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Earth Science, Interdependence Within the Earth System:

The sun is the principal external energy source for the Earth.

     –Explain how the combination of the Earth’s tilted axis and revolution around the sun causes the progression of seasons.

     — Recognize that oceans have a major effect on global climate because water in the oceans holds a large amount of heat.  
     –Explain how heating of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere by the sun drives convection within the atmosphere and hydrosphere producing winds, ocean currents and the water cycle, as well as influencing global climate.

Patterns of atmospheric movement influence global climate and local weather.

    –Describe how the composition and structure of the Earth’s atmosphere affects energy absorption, climate and distribution of particulates and gases. For example: Certain gases contribute to the greenhouse effect.

The Earth system has internal and external sources of energy, which produce heat and drive the motion of material in the oceans, atmosphere and solid earth.

     –Compare and contrast the energy sources of the Earth, including the sun, the decay of radioactive isotopes and gravitational energy.   
Global climate is determined by distribution of energy from the sun at the Earth’s surface.

     –Explain how Earth’s rotation, ocean currents, configuration of mountain ranges, and composition of the atmosphere influence the distribution of energy, which contributes to global climatic patterns.

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      –Explain how evidence from the geologic record, including ice core samples, and current data indicates that climate changes have occurred at varying rates over geologic time and continue to occur today.

Material in the Earth system cycles through different reservoirs, and is powered by the Earth’s sources of energy.

      –Trace the cyclical movement of carbon, oxygen and nitrogen through the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere. For example: The contribution of the burning of fossil fuels to the greenhouse effect

The Nature of Science and Engineering, Interactions Among Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Society:

Natural and designed systems are made up of components that act within a system and interact with other systems.

     –Describe a system, including specifications of boundaries and subsystems, relationships to other systems, and identification of inputs and expected outputs. For example: A power plant or ecosystem.

     –Identify properties of a system that are different from those of its parts but appear because of the interaction of those parts.

     –Describe how positive and/or negative feedback occur in systems. For example: The greenhouse effect. 

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.