Science Teachers Navigate the Changing Political Climate

Earlier this week, President Trump signed an executive order that begins to dismantle the Obama Administration’s efforts to combat climate change.

TRUMP: My administration is putting an end to the war on coal. We’re going to have clean coal, really clean coal.

But for many scientists, this is yet another blow to their field. And it will be a hot topic among more than 12-thousand teachers at the annual National Science Teachers conference in Los Angeles today. My co-host, Sushmita Pathak, reports on how science teachers see their roles changing.

PATHAK: It’s the end of the day at the School of the Future, a public high school in downtown Manhattan.

WANG: So this is my chemistry classroom. Over here you can see our current unit is chemical reactions and stoichiometry.

PATHAK: Laura Wang is showing me her 10th grade chemistry classroom. It’d be familiar to anyone who’s studied chemistry in high school. It has long black counters, wood stools and an enormous periodic table. What’s different perhaps is the question on the board:

WANG: “Can chemistry save the world from global warming?”

PATHAK: Wang says, her role as a teacher has changed since the election. She sees this as a moment of reckoning.

WANG: The day after the election, when I came into school I had to think about what’s my role here. You know, why does it matter whatever we’re doing in chemistry? How does what we teach matter in this new political climate? And that’s our challenge, that’s our task, that’s our calling.

PATHAK: Wang says she’s never talked about politics in her class. But next week – when her students are making biodiesel and debating whether it can help fight climate change – she’s pretty sure politics is going to come up.

WANG: I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have a political viewpoint. That I say this is where I stand, Where do you stand? And why do you stand there. And make it be then more about the evidence and students’ perspectives.

HAUGHT: We also need to teach them how to find what is real and what is fake and then be able to defend their arguments with good, factual information.

That’s Brandon Haught. He teaches high school environmental science in central Florida – and he wrote a book on Florida’s battles about teaching evolution. He’s been observing the clash of politics and science for decades. But now, he says, the anti-science folks are becoming louder and bolder. Kind of like wild bears in a forest.

HAUGHT: But then something gets them out of the forest. All of a sudden they’re in our neighborhoods, knocking over trash cans and even confronting people and injuring them.

PATHAK: Wang says, like it or not, students are being exposed to this anti-science rhetoric.

WANG: What I’m concerned about is a generation of students who are developing a sense of science is debatable.

PATHAK: Fighting this perception is the National Science Teacher’s Association – the group holding their annual conference today. David Evans is the director. He says science skepticism further diminishes the scientific literacy in society. And it was never really high to begin with.

EVANS: You can imagine being at a party and hearing, you know, I never really got that chemistry when I was in high school. But you can never imagine hearing, boy, tenses and verbs was something I never really got.

PATHAK: Now, Evans says, being OK with not understanding science has the highest stamp of approval from the White House. That’s why, he says, the role of science teachers is more critical than ever.

EVANS: At the end of the day, and at the end of the political struggle, it may well be that the future of democracy or the future of our way of life falls on their shoulders right now.

PATHAK: Evans’ message to science teachers at the conference is going to be simple: keep teaching science. Sushmita Pathak, Columbia Radio News.

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