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LANL scientists decry state science standards

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By Wren Propp

More than 60 Los Alamos scientists and engineers say the state’s proposed science education standards lack scientific rationale in regards to its treatment of climate change and evolution, among others.

“There is absolutely no scientific rationale for weakening the treatment of these subjects…” according to a letter included in full-page advertisement signed by the individuals, all of whom are identified as Los Alamos National Laboratory Fellows.

The ad ran Monday in the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper.

The state Public Education Department proposed the new science education standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in mid-September. The proposal draws on national standards called Next Generation Science Standards, or Next Gen, already adopted in several states.

However, the proposal makes changes to the national standards in areas of climate change, evolution and natural selection, as well as the manner and length of time the earth has aged. PED’s proposal has been panned by the Los Alamos school board, among others. Area students were critical of it at a meeting in Los Alamos last week.

This week, scientists and engineers weighed in saying modern scientific literacy requires understanding the human causes of climate change, biological common ancestry and natural selection of life on Earth, as well as the planet’s slow transformations – for students’ sake and to support economic competitiveness in the future of New Mexico.

According to the Associated Press, PED Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski said the letter by the scientists and engineers is important and that state officials are listening to their concerns.

“Right now we have a proposal on the table, and that’s what this process is all about,” Ruszkowski told the Associated Press. “We’ve made incredible progress in collaboration and what I’m trying to facilitate now is more collaboration.”

A four-hour public hearing on the proposals is scheduled Oct. 16 in Santa Fe.

Stephen K. Doorn, Ph.D, and a recently named Fellow at LANL as well as a Fellow of the American Physical Society, said Tuesday, it’s important that scientists voice an opinion when students may be short changed by the proposals.

“Students in the state are already at a disadvantage and we need to do everything we can to strengthen science education,” Doorn said.

In particular, the letter states:

• Using the term “temperature fluctuations” instead of the term “global warming,” part of the Next Gen standards, suggests “denial of reality of one of the central scientific and engineering challenges of our time: human-caused climate change.”

• Tossing the 4.6-billion-year age of the earth, the co-evolution of planetary geology and the biosphere, leaves the perception the New Mexico favors teaching an alternative, non-scientific “young Earth” approach.

• Striking some of Next Gen’s discussions on evolution “suggests that there may be an alternative scientific explanation for the history of life on Earth and its current diversity, while in fact evolution is the only such scientific explanation,  and is critical to progress in biomedical research.”

Adopting the proposal would hurt the workforce and discourage the location of high-tech firms to New Mexico, according to the letter.

According to the Associated Press, Ruszkowski said he received feedback from school district superintendents, parents and at least one teacher as the Education Department customized the proposed science standards, declining to name the superintendents or provide more specifics.

He said the agency is trying to be responsive to concerns about conflicts between science standards and personal beliefs, describing a “parent that grabbed me and says ‘I’m going to pull them (my children) out of public school if the schools aren’t reflective of my values.’”