This past February, teachers, students and parents across Idaho took note of a contentious two-day public hearing at the Idaho Statehouse surrounding newly proposed K-12 science standards. Noteworthy was that, time and again, Idaho House Education Committee Chairwoman Rep. Julie VanOrden (R-Pingree) chastised anyone who dared to use the phrase "climate change" during public testimony.
Following VanOrden's lead, the Republican majority of the committee voted 12-4 to omit a section of the proposed standards that referenced the impact of fossil fuels on the environment, stunning a cadre of teachers who had worked long and hard on the proposal.
Two weeks later, those in favor of the proposed standards breathed a collective sigh of relief when an Idaho Senate Committee overrode the House, approving the new standards with climate change references left intact. Four GOP senators joined two Democrats to vote 6-2 to push through the science standards.
Now, the time has come to apply those standards in Idaho classrooms—and put Idaho teachers to the test.
- Melyssa Ferro
"The new standards take the word 'science,' but change it from just being a noun, or a body of facts, or something we have to memorize. Now, it's turned into a verb, a series of actions," said Melyssa Ferro, a Treasure Valley middle school science teacher and member of the committee that helped craft the standards. "Rather than teaching kids how to simply read someone's data passively, we're asking them to go out and seek their own data and create solutions."
Knowing that an update to Idaho science standards was coming, Ferro has already been working with the Caldwell School District to adopt "inquiry-based" methods, but not every Idaho teacher or district has had the opportunity—or money—to do the same.
"While I wholeheartedly believe this will be a better way of teaching science in Idaho, it's also going to take professional development and training to get our teachers to the point where they have the resources, the background knowledge and the context that they're going to need to implement the new standards," Ferro said.
The man who oversees the Idaho Climate Justice League, a student-driven program to promote science education, said the new standards provide a rare opportunity in Gem State history to engage more of the public in fact-based conversations on science.
"These new standards include guidelines on how to implement them," said Casey Mattoon, programs manager for the Idaho Sierra Club and advisor to the Idaho Climate Justice League. "That's critical, especially for those first-year teachers in rural districts who need to have that information to succeed."
Mattoon said the Sierra Club embraces any opportunity to engage people on fact-based public education.
"We think oftentimes that student voices are ignored in their own education or education policy," said Mattoon. "So, our approach would be to engage leaders at the district level—teachers, staff, students—and get them to create a shared learning experience around climate change. Regardless, the Idaho Climate Justice League is already thinking about how they're going to take an active role in educating other students."
To be sure, the new science standards are a sea change in Idaho public education, but Ferro said it's the widespread support of education advances that will be critical to teachers overcoming pedagogical challenges. Chris Taylor, the Boise School District's K-12 science, social studies and computer science supervisor, and a member of the science standards committee, agrees.
"For educators who have been teaching 20 or more years, it's going to be a change," said Taylor. "We think about over 120 school districts in our state just having to wrap their heads around the standards that truly are K-12 standards now. All grade levels build on one another. Teachers need to know the content, the science and engineering practices and how all sciences are tied together by different themes and patterns."
Earlier this summer, the science standards committee and the Idaho Department of Education hosted regional training courses on the new standards for educators across Idaho, but committee members were quick to add that the effort requires community partnerships as well.
- Melyssa Ferro
For example, Ferro said she's been making connections with the Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge and the College of Idaho to come up with new ways to get students outside—and community partners inside—the classroom. The standards aside, Ferro concluded that science can't be taught with a textbook alone.
"We're going to need field trip money, supplies, equipment and access to consumable materials," she said. "Advocating for resources and community partnerships supports science instruction the way we know it needs to happen in our state, and the way we know our students need it in order to be successful."