National lab scientists assail state education proposal

Dozens of scientists and engineers at New Mexico’s nuclear weapons laboratory are voicing disagreement with public school science standards proposed by the state, cautioning that the guidelines could weaken the study of climate change, evolution and earth sciences.

Sixty-one senior technical staff at Los Alamos National Laboratory wrote to the New Mexico Public Education Department to express their disapproval of the standards, publishing their letter in a full-page newspaper ad Monday in The New Mexican.

The letter said the proposed standards suggest the denial of human-caused climate change as well as possibility of an alternative scientific explanation for the history of life on earth other than evolution.

“There is absolutely no scientific rationale for weakening the treatment of these subjects,” they wrote. Similar concerns have been raised by New Mexico Science Teachers’ Association, environmental organizations and teachers unions.

The board for New Mexico’s largest school district also announced this week that it would join the Santa Fe school board and others across the state that are opposing the proposed new science teaching standards.

The policy committee of the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education on Tuesday voted in favor of sending a letter to the Public Education Department criticizing the proposal, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

Board member Barbara Petersen said the letter will show teachers that they have support to “teach real science.”

The vote on the matter was not unanimous. Board member Peggy Muller-Aragon was the sole dissenter. She said the district should focus on the positive and not be adversarial. “I have looked and thought these look good to me because they kind of leave things a little bit open for the other side,” Muller-Aragon said.

The newly voiced opposition to the science standards come as the Santa Fe district is planning to hold a “teach in” demonstration Friday at the Public Education Department’s headquarters, in which local scientists are expected to offer lessons to department staff.

Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski has said the department is open to feedback and that the proposed changes are not set in stone. He called the letter from the Los Alamos scientists important and said that state officials are listening to the 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.”

The education department is seeking several changes to standards developed by a consortium of states and the National Academy of Sciences.

Many scientists from the national laboratory in Los Alamos, where the first atomic bomb was developed, were dismayed to see references to “global warming” replaced with “temperature fluctuations.” The changes also omit the age of the earth and limit references to evolution.

“I think of science as such an interconnected web of critical thinking skills and knowledge that knocking out part of the foundation weakens the whole edifice,” said Gregory Swift, a physicist at the laboratory who signed the letter criticizing the proposed standards. “We’re all very upset and against the proposed changes.”

A weeks-long public comment period culminates in a public hearing Oct. 16 in Santa Fe to gather feedback.

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.’ ”

“It could be an incredible moment for the state if we came together with the particular variety of perspectives and still moved forward,” he said.

Swift said current teaching standards adopted in 2003 are both “uncompromising on science and respectful of diversity.”

“Teachers know how to deal with it — with students of diverse opinions,” he said.

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