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Alabama public schools to teach climate change in science classes

In this Aug. 17, 2011 file photo, students sit in the gym at Crossville Elmentary School in Crossville, Ala. (Jay Reeves/AP)

Alabama has updated its science standards for K-12 schools to require for the first time that teachers educate students about climate change and human contributions to a warming Earth.

The new standards, approved unanimously this week by the GOP-controlled state board of education, will take effect in August 2016. They also include the theory of evolution, which Alabama educators have been teaching since 2005.

But as Alabama school districts purchase textbooks to align with the new standards, state officials will have to decide what to do about the adhesive label that every high school biology textbook has been required to carry since 2001, a warning emphasizing that evolution is a “controversial theory” that students should question.

The sticker says “no one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life’s origins should be considered as theory, not fact.” It tells students “there are many unanswered questions about the origin of life not mentioned in your textbook.”

Steve Ricks, the director of the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative, said the state superintendent of education will have to issue a ruling on the warning label.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with it at this point,” Ricks said. “No decision has been made.”

The decision to teach climate change — and the human activities that contribute to it — recognizes the fact that colleges and universities expect high school graduates to know it, he said.

“That is just part of the standard curriculum in most universities,” Ricks said. “We are asking our students to understand global climate change. We’re not telling them they have to believe it. but we do think this is a topic they need to be aware of as they go to college. And they also have to be looking at what is the evidence, is it supporting the theory or not? Even if you want to argue against something, you have to understand the theory.”

For a conservative state like Alabama, the choice to include global warming was surprisingly non-controversial, Ricks said.

He attributed that to the fact that the standards writing committee of 40 included subject experts, K-12 educators and university professors who spent three years crafting, revising and finalizing standards based on feedback from 11 public meetings and 3,000 comments on a state Web site.

The new standards emphasize learning by doing, with a heavy component of experimentation and hands-on learning, as opposed to reading and memorization, Ricks said.

In Alabama, he said, “we have the biggest math and science initiative going right now. That’s going to surprise a lot of people.”