Alabama is updating its decade-old science standards to require that students understand evolution and learn about climate change, topics that can still be controversial in the Bible Belt state.
Educators say the new rules – part of a major change that includes more experimentation and hands-on instruction and less lecturing – don’t require that students believe in evolution or accept the idea that climate is changing globally.
But public school students will be required for the first time to understand the theory of evolution. And teachers will be required to address climate change, which wasn’t a focus the last time the state set science standards in 2005.
The new standards take effect in 2016 after being unanimously approved by the Republican-controlled Alabama State Board of Education on Thursday.
No one spoke against the new standards when they were discussed at a board meeting in August, but supporters praised them as a step forward for the state.
A 40-member committee that developed the new course of study included people with “very strong religious beliefs” who considered the state’s faith traditions and worked together to develop the new guidelines, said Michal Robinson, science specialist for the state education agency.
“We still have to teach what the science is,” Robinson said in an interview Friday. “If students want to go into a science field in college or beyond, they have to have a foundation.”
The current state standard says students “should understand the nature of evolutionary theories,” but such knowledge isn’t required.
The new standard goes further, stating in the preface: “The theory of evolution has a role in explaining unity and diversity of life on earth. This theory is substantiated with much direct and indirect evidence. Therefore, this course of study requires our students to understand the principles of the theory of evolution from the perspective of established scientific knowledge. The committee recognizes and appreciates the diverse views associated with the theory of evolution.”
Steve Ricks, director of the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative, said the biggest changes under the new standards are the teaching methods that will now be used in science classrooms.
Rather than relying solely on lectures and memorization of facts from textbooks, teachers will now be required to let students figure out things on their own through observation and experimentation, just like real scientists.
“I don’t see how students would be able to learn this material without doing the science,” he said. “We are trying to teach kids to reason and solve problems.”
The state course of study only sets minimum standards. Local school officials will still make curriculum decisions.
Textbooks used in Alabama science classes have carried a disclaimer sticker for years stating that evolution is a “controversial theory,” not fact, and the new course of study doesn’t change the warnings, which were advocated by Christian conservatives.
A committee that will review science texts could consider whether to remove or alter the stickers, officials said. A public hearing is set for Nov. 9 in Montgomery.
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.