2003 Teacher’s Guide Prompts New Criticism of NSTA

By Sean Cavanagh — December 12, 2006 7 min read
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After facing recent accusations about the money it receives from the oil industry, a science teachers’ group received new criticism last week about one of its corporate-supported products, which a number of experts say presents misleading information about global warming.

That guide, “Search for Solutions,” is three years old and was released as one piece of a broader educational series covering a range of scientific topics.

Yet critics of the National Science Teachers Association see the guide, which was financed by the oil producer ConocoPhillips, as further evidence of what they regard as the organization’s compromised position on climate-change issues.

Those questions first emerged late last month, when NSTA officials rejected an offer from a producer of former Vice President Al Gore’s film about global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth,” to distribute 50,000 free DVD copies of the movie. The producer, Laurie David, suggested that the NSTA’s stance was influenced by its acceptance of corporate donations from oil interests that have disputed some of the claims made in Mr. Gore’s documentary. (“Critics Accuse NSTA of Having Conflict Over Film,” Dec. 6, 2006.)

NSTA officials reject that contention, saying their policies forbid distributing or endorsing products from outside groups or individuals.


The teaching guide’s section on global warming was one of several short written materials included within “Search for Solutions,” a 10-episode video and teaching-guide series that covers a broad range of scientific issues.

Climate Cycles vs. the Greenhouse Effect

A section of a teacher’s guide created by the National Science Teachers Association that focuses on global warming is being criticized by scientists for presenting what they see as inaccurate information. Two portions of the section they say could mislead readers are:

• The study of climate is a new field in comparison to the earth’s age, with only about 100 years of what would be considered hard science on the subject. The promoters of climate cycle as the cause of global warming argue that science has no evidence of where the climate would be now, even in the absence of the greenhouse gases. They support the idea that the temperature is affected by the changes in the earth’s orbit around the sun, the sun’s variation in output, the fluctuations in the climate system, volcanic activity, and varying amounts of carbon dioxide that are not a result of the Industrial Age. (Theory, Argument)

• Temperatures in the United States have increased over the past century, but are those increases significant? Greenhouse enthusiasts would argue that it is the trend caused by an increase in gases such as carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere and that the rise will escalate as long as the United States is oblivious to the pollution rates. (Prediction)

SOURCE: National Science Teachers Association

When they released the teaching series in 2003, NSTA officials said they planned to distribute 20,000 free copies of the video. Gerald F. Wheeler, the group’s executive director, said he believed those videos were given out at an NSTA conference, though some may also have been sent by mail. ConocoPhillips officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Ms. David contends that the NSTA’s stance on the teacher’s guide is hypocritical, given that it did not distribute “An Inconvenient Truth.” She also noted that a ConocoPhillips official is listed as the co-executive producer of the teaching series, along with Mr. Wheeler. “It’s completely inconsistent,” said Ms. David in an interview, referring to the distribution of the “Solutions” series.

But the NSTA executive director said in an interview that his organization’s decisions in those two instances were consistent. The teaching guide, he said, is an NSTA-created product—as opposed to something produced by an outside organization or individual.

He also said that despite the reference to ConocoPhillips in the credits for the teaching series, the oil company had no input on any of its content. Committees of teachers and scientific researchers who worked on the series directed all content, he said.

“ConocoPhillips had absolutely no say,” Mr. Wheeler said. “We were totally in control of that production.”

Confusing the Public

Mr. Gore has been actively promoting his movie across the country since it was released on DVD in November. Days after the controversy involving the NSTA emerged, the organization’s 13-member board voted sunanimously Nov. 29 to uphold its policy and not distribute “An Inconvenient Truth.” The NSTA has offered the filmmakers several alternatives, including publicizing the film among its 56,000 members via e-mail and on its Web site. Ms. David has rejected those options.

The goal of “Search for Solutions” was to spark interest in science among middle and high school students and to teach them about the nature of science, NSTA officials said. The many subjects the series addresses include space exploration, DNA research, wetlands ecology, and forensic science.

One guide is titled “Climate Cycles vs. the Greenhouse Effect.” Three researchers who were asked separately by Education Week to review the five-page document last week criticized the material it presented. They said it used language that was likely to confuse or mislead teachers about global warming.

The vast majority of scientific experts today believe that human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels, is contributing to global warming, or rising temperatures of the sea and Earth’s surface. As greenhouse emissions, such as the release of carbon dioxide, increase and warming trends continue, more extreme weather, such as droughts and intense storms, are likely to follow, they say.

The scientists who reviewed the guide on global warming took issue with statements such as: “Some scientists believe that the high level of present day C02 will soon be, if not already, on the decrease.”

“Nobody believes that,” said Daniel P. Schrag, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University, who has conducted extensive research on climate change. If humans’ burning of fossil fuels continues at the current rate, scientific experts believe CO2 levels will, in fact, continue to increase, Mr. Schrag said. Even stabilizing CO2 levels will be difficult, he said.

Mr. Schrag also said the document created a false dichotomy that suggests global warming is either being generated by natural changes in the “climate cycle” or by industrial emissions. Scientists agree that natural climate changes have an influence, but research shows that human activity plays a far greater role, he said.

“This thing is outrageous,” Mr. Schrag said of the global-warming guide. “This has nothing to do with science teaching.”

Samuel Levis, a project scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a nonprofit scientific organization in Boulder, Colo., said in an e-mail that a broad problem with the guide is what he saw as its portrayal of scientific opinion on global warming “as a debate, when it’s not.”

That approach to talking about the issue “has often been used to confuse the public about well-understood issues,” Mr. Levis said.

If a teaching document is going to discuss any such debate over global warming, he said, it is obligated to inform readers that the vast amount of scientific evidence supports human activity’s contribution to the rising temperatures.

Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University, questioned the document’s use of the term “greenhouse enthusiasts” to describe those who believe industrial pollutants are a major factor in warming trends.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mr. Oppenheimer said. “That’s a political statement, not a scientific one.”

Mr. Oppenheimer appeared in a 2006 television documentary produced by Ms. David about global warming, “Too Hot Not to Handle.” He said, however, that his views on the guide were his own.

The NSTA’s Mr. Wheeler noted that the teachers’ guides were released three years ago, and that work began on them in 2001, when he believed there was less public understanding of global warming. The main focus of the product was to boost students’ interest in science, rather than to delve into great detail into any one content area, said Mr. Wheeler, who has a Ph.D. in physics.

Two of the scientists who reviewed the guide noted that there was scientific consensus on global warming in 2001. But Mr. Levis said that public opinion on the issue could, in fact, have influenced the teaching series’ tone and content.

“Just three years ago, the media were still presenting global warming as an unresolved debate,” he said.

Fear of Trivialization

Barbara Pietrucha, a retired middle school teacher from Neptune, N.J., served on a committee that helped edit and review the teacher guides on global warming and other subjects. Committee members obviously sought to convey accurate information in the guide, she said. But she also said they were striving to present the topic in a way that sparked students’ interest.

Had committee members written the guide today, it would probably include different language about global warming, she said. “From my perspective, I always taught global warming as ‘this is happening,’ ” Ms. Pietrucha said. “I never talked about it as a debate.”

Both Ms. Pietrucha and Inez Liftig, a middle school science teacher in Fairfield, Conn., who also reviewed the series, said ConocoPhillips had no input on the guide.

Ms. Liftig said she could not remember if she helped review the global-warming section of the series, specifically. But she believed the video and teaching guides provided valuable resources to teachers for explaining the nature and processes of science to students—from gathering data to conducting investigations. It “show[s] students about science,” she said. “Science is inquiry.”

While she sees global warming as a paramount topic for educators, Ms. Liftig believes the NSTA made the correct decision in not distributing the Gore film; such a move, despite filmmakers’ assertions, would have drawn criticism as a political endorsement, she said. The teacher added that she hopes the recent dispute would not trivialize the issue of global warming in the eyes of teachers, or the public.

“The water is so muddy now,” Ms. Liftig said. The recent controversy has “taken this and given it kind of a Hollywood slant.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as 2003 Teacher’s Guide Prompts New Criticism of NSTA

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