Jan. 17, 2012 at 2:40 PM ET
A national organization best known for its defense of teaching evolution has added climate change to its agenda in a move that highlights a brewing controversy inside the classroom.
Across the country, teachers and schools boards are being pressured to teach that the science of climate change is controversial when, in fact, it is not, according to the National Center for Science Education.
For example, the school board in Los Alamitos, Calif., made headlines in 2011 for requiring teachers of an environmental science class to ensure their curriculum presented all sides of the climate change issue.
"That is so common with evolution," Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, told me.
Anti-evolution groups often push school boards to include teaching of controversial ideas such as intelligent design inside the science classroom, even though it has been ruled as "creationism in disguise."
On climate change, NCSE notes that mountains of scientific evidence show that the planet is warming and human activities are part of the reason why. That's not controversial, it says.
Nevertheless, anti-global warming messages spread by groups such as the Heartland Institute, Scott said, are used by grassroots activists to pressure school boards and educators to teach that global warming is controversial.
James Taylor, an environmental policy fellow at the institute, told the Los Angeles Times that this pushback is needed to prevent "an important and ongoing scientific debate" about human-caused climate change from turning into "a propaganda assault on impressionable students."
Scott said NCSE will weigh in on the side of science, giving parents, teachers, and school boards advice and legal support to help maintain the integrity of climate science inside the classroom.
"That's our ecological niche," Scott said. "Nobody else is doing this."
"The climate change education situation today is about where the teaching of evolution was 20 to 25 years ago," noted Scott. "We are trying to get ahead of the situation before positions get hardened."
Unlike the teaching of evolution, which is often a standard section in biology class, climate change science is scattered throughout the curriculum.
It is sometimes found in junior high Earth science class, for example, and is starting to be featured in biology and geology courses. More often, it is found as part of senior year environmental science courses.
NCSE's goal is to help science teachers cover climate change inside their classroom with information on the factors that influence it, such as increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.
Teachers ought to be able to discuss this without controversy and explain that there are several policy proposals out there on what to do, said Scott.
But that's where the science teaching should stop.
"We are not a policy institute. We are not going to argue about cap and trade or a carbon tax," Scott noted in reference to two policy proposals.
More on science education: