Science standards that are under development received high marks Wednesday from the Kansas state school board for pushing hands-on instruction over textbook learning, even from members who have worried that the new guidelines will be too friendly toward evolution.
State Board of Education members praised the proposed standards for emphasizing that students in all grades should design and pursue experiments. Kansas and 25 other states are working with the National Research Council on common standards for possible adoption in their public schools.
A first draft of the proposed standards became public in May, and Kansas officials expect another to be released in November. The board receives monthly updates.
Past work on science standards in Kansas has been overshadowed by debates about how evolution should be taught. The state had five sets of standards in eight years starting in 1999, as evolution skeptics gained and lost board majorities in elections. The current, evolution-friendly standards were adopted in 2007, but state law requires them to be updated.
Evolution skeptics aren't expected to regain a majority in November's elections, even with five of 10 board seats on the ballot, so the next standards adopted in Kansas are likely to reflect mainstream scientific views that evolution is a well-founded core concept.
But board member Ken Willard, a Hutchinson Republican who has warned publicly against evolution skeptics being treated as "crackpots," likes the emphasis on hands-on learning in the draft standards.
"I'm very supportive of most everything that I've seen," he said.
And board member Kathy Martin, a Clay Center Republican who has supported past guidelines incorporating skepticism of evolution, said she believes science can't be learned only "out of a book."
"I really like what these new science standards are doing," she said. "I like the discovery-based, project-based learning."
Kansas uses its science guidelines to develop standardized tests for students that measure how well schools are teaching, which in turn influences classroom instruction. Current guidelines for each grade level start with a standard that says students will develop the skills needed to conduct scientific inquiries.
Matt Krehbiel, the education department official overseeing the state's work on the standards, said such an approach inadvertently encouraged some teachers to do "maybe one isolated project" involving hands-on learning.
"The intent of the last round was to highlight inquiry by setting it apart as its own standard," he said.
But, he said, in some classrooms, "That meant it got taught as a separate unit rather than integrated with everything else."
The only notes of caution during Wednesday's update came from board member Walt Chappell, a Wichita Republican, who questioned whether standardized tests can measure creativity. Chappell also said schools must avoid sacrificing "a foundation of knowledge."
"These kids can't be thrown out in the lake and say, 'Swim,' and then somehow they're supposed to become scientists," he said.
But Virginia Wolken, a retired high school physics and chemistry teacher from Erie in southeast Kansas, said allowing students to design and pursue their own experiments will cement their knowledge.
"When you learned to drive a car, you have may learned the rules first, but then you learned to drive by actually doing it," Wolken, who serves on a state science standards committee, said after the board's update.
Board members also see such an approach as more fun, too.
"I'll come back and take science again," said Sue Storm, an Overland Park Democrat.