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Idaho Students Are Literally Begging to Be Taught About Climate Change

"Students are the ones that are suffering."

7 FEB 2018

The political debate over climate change has seeped into Idaho's science classrooms, causing an uproar from concerned students and teachers.

Last year, Idaho became the only state in the US to successfully remove any and every reference to human-caused climate change in its K through 12 science curriculum.


Now, the standards are up for revision once again. Teachers, parents and students are fighting hard for the reintroduction of five key sections related to human-caused climate change, which were "surgically removed" in 2017, according to Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education.

At a public hearing on the proposed revisions, local students were literally begging to be taught some real climate science.

"Education is being censored due to political fears, and students are the ones that are suffering," testified Cassandra Kenyon, a senior at Timberline High School in Boise, in front of the House Education Committee.

"I simply cannot understand what is wrong with giving Idaho students multiple perspectives and asking them to decide for themselves."

While the current science standards do not prohibit educators from teaching their students climate science, science advocates are worried that in more conservative areas of the state teachers will actively avoid what they see as a politically "controversial" topic.

These concerns are not misplaced. Denial of climate change in Idaho is rampant and extremely partisan. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, only 24 percent of Republicans in Idaho agree with the scientific consensus regarding human-caused climate change, which is the lowest percentage of any US state.


While chairwoman of the education committee Rep. Julie VanOrden may not be a self-described climate denier, she is hardly a fan of the topic. During public hearings on the revisions this week, VanOrden repeatedly reminded those testifying that she did not want to hear about climate change – at all.

"We are not having a hearing on climate change," VanOrden is reported to have said.

"We're here to address the changes made in the standards, not climate change." 

She even interrupted a Boise State geology professor during his testimony to remind him the revisions had nothing to do with climate change.

"But it is about education," said Dr. Matthew Kohn.

"You're out of line," said VanOrden, ending the professor's testimony.

Although the revisions put forward by science advocates this year are quite watered down, they would still represent a massive scientific victory if passed by the Republican-dominated legislature.

Still, some compromises had to be made. For instance, where the original standards emphasized human causes of climate change, the new draft acknowledges both human and "natural" effects.


"Although this is not exactly untrue, to say this in the context of a discussion of 'current changes in climate' is to suggest a significant role of natural activities in current climate change, which is misleading," Branch said in an email to The New York Times. Still, despite the compromises, Branch said he hopes the revisions will pass.

The revisions that are now under consideration seek to reintroduce a handful of sections, which among other things will ask students to consider "human impacts on Earth systems" and how "average global temperatures will continue to rise." But Rep. Scott Syme said he doesn't want to approve the standards until two sections are again removed.

"There's two that I don't like, and they didn't go far enough last year," Syme said.

"They have conclusions drawn in."

"I don't care if the students come up with a conclusion that the earth is flat – as long as it's their conclusion, not something that's told to them," added Syme.

Melyssa Ferroa, the 2016 Idaho Teacher of the year and a key player behind the new revisions, couldn't disagree more. She said the new standards encourage students to "be active learners of science instead of just passively receiving a set of facts." She argued students will be encouraged to "question their world and seek evidence" to support their conclusions.


Ilah Hickman, a high school junior from Boise, was one of several students who testified in favor of the new standards.

"Years later, me and my generation will be the ones that will have to deal with the … effects on the earth due to climate change or anything else that might be going on, whether or not we are to blame," Hickman said. 

"Being put in such a role, I believe that we should be as prepared as ever to combat these changes."

If the new standards are voted down, Idaho will have to revert to some seriously out-dated 2001 science curricula, as the current guidelines were only passed as "temporary rules."

"It's going to confuse the daylights out of our students," the state Superintendent of Schools Sherri Ybarra told the committee.

"If these do not pass … we're going to go backwards."

A vote for the new revisions has not yet been scheduled.