Worried that public schools are failing to prepare students for a complex and changing world, educators unveiled new guidelines Tuesday that call for sweeping changes in the way science is taught in the United States, emphasizing hands-on learning and critical scrutiny of scientific evidence.
Among many other changes, the guidelines call for introducing climate science into the curriculum starting in middle school, and teaching high school students in detail about the effects of human activity on climate.
The guidelines also take a firm stand that children must learn about evolution, the central organizing idea in the biological sciences for more than a century, but one that has rallied state lawmakers and some religious conservatives to insist that alternative notions like intelligent design be taught.
Though they could become a focus of political controversy, the climate and evolution standards are just two aspects of a set of guidelines containing hundreds of new ideas.
The guidelines, known as the Next Generation Science Standards, were devised to combat widespread scientific ignorance, standardize teaching among disparate states and raise the number of high school graduates who choose scientific and technical majors in college, a critical issue for the country's economic welfare.
"This is a big step forward for giving students access to the science most relevant to them today and for our shared future," said Sarah Shanley Hope, executive director of a group called the Alliance for Climate Education.
Drafts of the guidelines, including the recommendations for teaching climate change and evolution, have been out for months and have already drawn hostile commentary from groups critical of mainstream scientific thinking.
Though 26 states representing well over half the American population have committed to giving serious consideration to formal adoption of the guidelines, and at least a dozen more states are expected to study the guidelines closely, there is no guarantee that the standards will be adopted in any state.
The central thrust of the guidelines, which were devised by a consortium of 26 state governments and several groups representing scientists and teachers, is to move teachers away from simply presenting scientific facts in the classroom and expecting children to memorize them.
The focus instead would be on learning how science is done: how ideas are developed and tested, what counts as strong or weak evidence and how insights from many scientific disciplines fit together into a coherent picture of the world.
"We must teach our students to do something in science class, not to memorize facts," said Bruce Alberts, editor in chief of the journal Science, in a statement.
Educators foresee more use of real-world examples, like taking students to a farm or fish hatchery to help them learn principles of biology, chemistry and physics.
They want students to learn to construct at least basic versions of scientific models – the simplified representations of reality that undergird tasks as diverse as building a skyscraper that will not collapse, designing a drug to treat illness and accurately predicting the effects of global warming.
And they want to introduce students to topics that can be made comprehensible only by drawing on the ideas and methods of many scientific disciplines, one of the reasons climate change and other large-scale environmental problems are seen as holding so much potential in the classroom.
Several educators said in interviews that actually pulling all that off in the schoolhouses of the United States will be no small task.
Many states are likely to adopt the guidelines over the next year, but it could be years before the guidelines are translated into detailed curriculum documents and specific lesson plans, teachers are trained or retrained in the material and centralized tests are revised.
And all of this has to happen at a time when state education departments and many local schools are under severe financial strain. Inevitably, educators said, some states will do it better than others.
"You can't do education on the cheap," said Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a group that counters efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution and climate science. "Teachers are going to need some help in mastering this approach."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.