At first, people who reject predominant scientific findings that humans are the main cause of climate change may be glad that new public-school science standards don’t require teachers to teach that.

But if inquiry-based teaching guides under development in the Iowa K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative are used, students may reach that determination on their own.

The Climate Science Education Initiative, a project of the University of Iowa’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research and College of Education, will help teachers apply in class Next Generation Science Standards that do not take the step of telling students what to think about climate change.

The Iowa Board of Education approved the standards in August 2015 to establish learning expectations in four scientific domains, and students will learn about climate change in each. Thirty-six of the dozens of standards require students to understand how the climate system works.

As envisioned in the Climate Science Education Initiative, students would not be told the causes of climate change. Instead, they would learn to raise their own questions and study data in search of answers.

Ted Neal, University of Iowa
Ted Neal, University of Iowa

“They will look at facts relevant to those questions and draw conclusions that answer their questions,” Ted Neal, a University of Iowa clinical science instructor, told IowaWatch.

And what if students look at their scientific data and then conclude that humans have not been the primary causes of climate change in the past century?

“That is not possible,” Neal answered. “Because the data is so overwhelming. Out of 920 peer-reviewed journal articles on this issue, zero found that climate change was not anthropogenic.”

Here’s how Kris Kilibarda, the science consultant for the Iowa Department of Education, answered the same question during a telephone interview:

“The standard requires a student to be able to create a scientific argument, and it doesn’t say what that argument could be.” She said teachers could encourage the student to “grapple with issues and engage in scientific debate with another.” She said local control comes into play.

Banners at the Coralville Transit stop in downtown Iowa City celebrate the environmental research done at the University of Iowa. Pictured in the banner is Jerald Schnoor, the university’s Allen S. Henry Chair in Engineering, professor of occupational and environmental health and co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. Photo: Lyle Muller/IowaWatch
Banners at the Coralville Transit stop in downtown Iowa City celebrate the environmental research done at the University of Iowa. Pictured in the banner is Jerald Schnoor, the university’s Allen S. Henry Chair in Engineering, professor of occupational and environmental health and co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. Photo: Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

Although almost all scientists agree on human activity’s impact on climate change, many politicians and teachers still oppose teaching that in school. Those skeptics claim it is “only a theory” and not a fact, as if it was only a hunch.

In the scientific community, such statements erroneously conflate hypotheses, which are tentative but untested ideas or predictions about why something happens, with facts and evidence, which are things that can be observed or measured, and with scientific theory, which is the tested and confirmed explanation for the things that have been observed or measured.

Consider gravity, for example, Neal suggested.

“No matter how many times I hold this pencil in the air and release it, it will drop to the table,” he said, letting the pencil fall repeatedly for emphasis. That falling pencil was an observable fact, and aspects of that fall can be measured.

But here’s what’s missing from the fact of the falling pencil: Why did it fall rather than float?

Isaac Newton answered that question with a law of universal gravitation, said Scott Spak, a University of Iowa assistant professor of environmental and chemical engineering and urban and regional planning. Albert Einstein then developed a more complete and compelling theory to answer that question in 1915 when he developed the general theory of relativity. After rigorous research, experiments and tests that sought to disprove it, the theory of gravity became the only valid scientific explanation of the observable fact that things fall if released. That theory remains unquestioned today.

Scott Spak, University of Iowa
Scott Spak, University of Iowa

In climate science, the idea that human activity has been the main cause of climate change for the past century goes back several decades and subjected to repeated verification tests and experiments. Like the scientific theory that gravity makes things fall instead of float, the human-cause explanation for climate change has held up, earning it the high status of scientific theory. In the scientific community, that question’s been settled since the 1980s and was coming out in peer-reviewed journals, Spak said.

In 2009, 18 scientific associations issued a statement on climate change to Congress saying: “Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.”

Nevertheless, Neal, one of the leaders of the Climate Science Education Initiative, believes that merely explaining to students what scientists say is not as effective as an “inquiry-driven” approach to teaching.

He said “evidence-based best practices” is at the heart of K-12 Initiative, which has involved meetings and surveying public school teachers. The Initiative and the new science standards are less focused on memorizing facts and more focused on teaching students to apply the scientific process, use and analyze data and the build rational arguments to answer their own questions.

The climate science initiative will provide what Iowa teachers requested in a fall 2016 survey: access to observations and data, help aligning lesson plans and materials with climate science education and the Next Generation Science Standards.

Those standards set expectations in four major scientific domains: physical science, which involves motion, force, and energy; life science, which includes ecosystems, natural selection and organisms; earth and space science; and engineering and technology. Within those domains, “students will engage in investigational learning about climate change,” according to a description of the initiative on the center’s website.

“We’re saying here’s evidence, here’s how you determine if the evidence is valid, and here’s how you develop a scientific argument,” Kilibarda, the state education department consultant, said. “You determine what the argument would be. We would never say there’s only one way it can be, but we will say here’s the scientific evidence.”


The Center for Global and Environmental Research became concerned about climate science teaching in high school after IowaWatch published an article in April 2016 on how on how teachers teach it, according to University of Iowa Professors Jerald Schnoor and Greg Carmichael, the center’s co-directors.

Gregory Carmichael, University of Iowa
Gregory Carmichael, University of Iowa

Nearly half the teachers surveyed for that story, reported in a collaboration with the student-run Cedar Falls High School Tiger Hi-Line newspaper, said climate change should be taught as just one theory, informing students that a variety of thought exists but without concluding which theory is right or wrong.

“It got us thinking,” said Carmichael, a chemical and biochemical engineer who has done extensive research on air quality and its environmental impacts. “That started the conversation.”

The IowaWatch/Tiger Hi-Line article reported its findings were consistent with a national study in Science that found 30 percent of middle and high school science teachers taught global warming is probably the result of natural causes.

Jerald Schnoor, University of Iowa
Jerald Schnoor, University of Iowa

Schnoor, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, said the article showed that teachers “were seemingly adrift” on how to teach climate science.

After the IowaWatch/Tiger Hi-Line article, the center funded two research assistants to work on the K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative with the College of Education. To find out what was needed in class, the initiative surveyed 400 teachers and educators last fall.

The center, a state-funded institute, promotes research on global environmental change. Its focus includes “regional effects on natural ecosystems, environments, and resources, and effects on health, culture and social systems,” the center’s website said.

Spak, who studies the intersection between human activity and environmental change, said that while teachers have some science expertise, they need help in climate science. The survey showed that less than 25 percent of the responding teachers had been exposed to climate science at the undergraduate level.

They also want scientific observations, professional development and training in the content, models, and lesson plans developed by Iowa experts to use with the Next Generation Science Standards.

The initiative team works with public school teachers and is focusing initially on teaching tools for the 8th grade Iowa science standards. Next it will expand to the 6th and 7th grades and finally into high school.

Neal explained to the center’s board in an April meeting an 8th grade pilot being developed called “How Iowans Use Their Land.” The description he distributed said the four-to-eight-week pilot will draw from nine of the 25 8th grade standards in the Next Generation Science Standards. For example, one of those nine requires students to “develop a model to describe the cycling of water through the earth’s systems driven by energy from the sun and the force of gravity.”

Water runoff from farmland near Marengo. Photo: Danielle Wilde/IowaWatch
Water runoff from farmland near Marengo. Photo: Danielle Wilde/IowaWatch

The class would use scientific principles to create a method for “monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment.” Students would engage in their local environment by identifying land use changes and components of the watershed and then investigate their own questions about land use in their area, such as use of tiling for agricultural drainage or soil erosion.

Ultimately, students will learn how Iowans’ past and current actions “have impacted the region where they work and play,” the description states.

The Next Generation Science Standards will not become mandatory for another few years, but some teachers are already trying to teach from them, according to a statement on the environmental research center’s website.

“One of the nice things about Iowa and Iowa teachers is that they care so much they’re trying to get ahead the game,” Neal said in a quotation attributed to him in the statement. “They’re not looking at this with apprehension.”

This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs, a nonprofit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.