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Wyoming STEM Professors Defend Common Science Standards

The debate over the Next Generation Science Standards rages on in Wyoming.

The state board officially blocked adoption of the common standards in March. Earlier this month, a group of churches in the state came out in support, saying the teaching of evolution "does not interfere with faith."

And last week, nearly 50 current and retired science and math educators from the University of Wyoming wrote a position paper directed to the state board of education titled, "Why the Critics of the Next Generation Science Standards Are Wrong." Peter Ellsworth, an educational consultant and former director of the university's Science and Math Teaching Center, is credited with writing the letter. The head of the physics and astronomy department and professors of geology, zoology, atmospheric science, and education, among others, signed on. 

The 17-page paper addresses lofty questions such as "What is science?" and "What do scientists actually do?," and was intended as a primer for state board members. The authors then refute, one-by-one, the predominant criticisms of the common science standards raised at board meetings. 

For instance, the paper states that a person who argues evolution must be taught as a theory (rather than presented ostensibly as a scientific fact), "does not understand the nature or the language of science." It says:

The use of the term theory over the years has been troublesome, for it means something entirely different in science than it does in everyday life. In science a theory is a concept that has been thoroughly tested and moved from an hypothesis to a trusted truth, verified in studies (often over generations of use) tested, passed judgment by scientists for years and years, passed many tests through use. An example would be Bernoulli's principles about air pressure and wings, which helps us figure out how to make planes that fly. These scientific theories should be accepted as a working truth. 

The author then attempts to discredit the Thomas B. Fordham Institute—a nationally known education think tank that gave the standards a grade C and has reliably voiced opposition to their adoption—saying the group misrepresents the standards and uses out-of-date criteria to judge them. (Fordham, it's worth noting, has been a staunch advocate of the Common Core State Standards, which cover mathematics and English/language arts.) 

Ultimately, the author writes that the science standards are here to stay in Wyoming.

"Those of us who are involved in training teachers or providing professional development have already revised our programs to align with the NGSS and we have no intention of going back to standards that we know to be out of date and inferior," the paper declares.

The Casper Star-Tribune, which has been following the controversy closely, said that a committee of teachers and administrators gathered by the Wyoming Department of Education last year unanimously recommended the standards' adoption. It also reports that 15 of Wyoming's 48 school districts are already implementing the common science standards. This is not unusual: Plenty of NGSS trainings are going on in other states that have not adopted—for instance, Colorado and Connecticut. I've also heard that a lot of science educators are leading the charge on getting that training. Many are even looking outside the districts, to museums and science centers, to get professional development aligned with the science standards.

Perhaps what's most notable about the letter is that the majority of its contents are not actually Wyoming-specific—and could very well be used by other pro-NGSS groups as the debate heats up in other states (which I think is inevitable). It will be interesting to see whether the letter has legs or dies in its state of origin.

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