#101 Glenn Branch, Deputy Director at National Center for Science Education

Glenn Branch is the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education and a coeditor of Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools. He is the author of numerous articles on climate education and evolution education in such publications as Scientific AmericanThe American Biology Teacher, and Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics

Bigger Than Us Episode 101

This transcription has been lightly edited for readability.

Host Raj Daniels  02:02

If you were asked to share something interesting about yourself, what would it be?

Glenn Branch  02:06

In my spare time over the last few years, I’ve become something of an expert on the flat earth movement, which is not something that I have to pay attention to much professionally. But by now I’ve given a talk about the history and present state of the flat earth movement a few times. I contributed a few blog posts written with my colleague Craig Foster at Cortland University, on public opinion surveys about the shape of the earth to Scientific American, and I have some other related projects in the works right now.

Host Raj Daniels  02:40

Can you tell me a little bit more about the flat earth movement?

Glenn Branch  02:43

Well, the modern Flat Earth movement is really a Victorian phenomenon. It starts up in the 1840s in England. And for obvious reasons, it never does very well. And people thought it was more or less dead in 2001, when Charles K Johnson who ran the major Flat Earth Society died, but it’s popped up again. Partly It seems as a result of the internet, which is a…source of misinformation. And of course, it’s been promoted by celebrities from the sports and entertainment world. So pollsters have been doing some research on public opinion about the shape of the earth. And routinely, it shows something like one to 2% of Americans and Britons professing to believe in a flat earth. And this is an odd phenomenon that deserves attention.

Host Raj Daniels  03:41

That really is amazing. And you mentioned the internet. And obviously, we know things on the internet and the way they spread the virality of you know such ideas. But I had no idea that in this day and age, people still believe that we’re on a flat earth even with all the pictures, photography, satellite imagery, etc.

Glenn Branch  03:59

Well, the current flat earthers are extremely conspiratorial, and they will dismiss these all as the products of a shadowy conspiracy that want to convince us that the earth is not flat.

Host Raj Daniels  04:12

Just imagine how many people would have to be complicit in that conspiracy.

Glenn Branch  04:17

It really literally defies belief. It’s amazing. 

Host Raj Daniels  04:25

Can you give us an overview of NCSE?

Glenn Branch  04:28

The National Center for Science Education has been around since the early 1980s. It started primarily to resist the attempts of creationists to insert creationism into the classrooms of our public schools. We have had good success in doing so. NCSE was instrumental in the 2005 case Kitzmiller versus Dover in Pennsylvania, which established in a federal court the unconstitutionality of teaching intelligent design creationism in the public schools.

In about 2008 or so we noticed that a lot of anti-evolution bills that were introduced to state legislatures across the country, were increasingly also including global warming as other topics in science that were supposedly controversial, and we didn’t quite know what to make of that. Are the creationists becoming global warming deniers? Or were they trying to make common cause with global warming deniers? Or were they simply trying to distract attention from the fact they were singling out evolution for invidious attention? Never did quick get straight on that. But we did continue to see legislative attacks on evolution being broadened to include climate change. So we asked other organizations active in science, education, and similar areas. Hey, who does for climate change what NCSE does for evolution? And the answer kept on coming back, “well, no one.” Often followed by, “why don’t you?”

After some discussion and preparation, the Board of Directors decided that they want to add climate change to the NCSE portfolio as one of the areas of science that’s under attack and requires defense in the public school classrooms. And since about 2011, we have been doing climate change, as well as evolution.

Host Raj Daniels  06:32

Now, I came across your work when I read about or read this article called Getting Climate Studies Into Schools. And your name was mentioned in that article. Can you share some of the ways that NCSE does get programs into schools or gets climate change into schools? I’m very curious because I have three young ones. And I would like them to learn more about climate change in their studies.

Glenn Branch  06:51

Sure. The primary determinant of what gets fun in the classroom is state science education standards. And these are documents developed by the individual states that specify what kinds of knowledge and abilities students are expected to have at various points through their science education. These are important because they determine the content of textbooks that determine the content of what pre-service and in-service teachers learn themselves. They determine the content of statewide testing. And they also provide a shield for those teachers who are experiencing misguided pressure from students, parents, colleagues, members of the community, who object to the teaching of climate change, or evolution, or any other socially controversial scientific topic and classroom. Because if climate change is in the state science standards, then the teacher can reply, look, this is what the state expects me to teach. This is what I have to teach. If you don’t like it, talk to the state. And that takes the burden of response off the teacher.

Climate change started entering state science standards around 2013, when something called the Next Generation Science Standards, NGSS, debuted. NGSS was developed by a consortium of 26 states, along with a bunch of nonprofits in science and science education. And they were intended to be available for states to use. So far, 20 states have adopted NGSS and another 24 have adopted standards based on the same framework on which NGSS is based. And some of those have comparable treatment of climate change NGSS some of them have slightly better some of them have worse. Because some of the adjustments made to the framework were specifically in the climate change.

I believe you’re in Texas, and Texas did not adopt the NGSS. Nor did it adopt standards based on the framework. And in fact, it has standards that are among the worst in the nation for their treatment of climate change. Part of this is due to anti-climate change advocacy on the part of members of the State Board of Education. In 2009 when the state science standards are undergoing revision, a conservative faction on the Texas State Board of Education took it upon itself to rewrite sections of the standards to downplay the scientific bonafides of both evolution and climate change.

This year, the standards for biology, chemistry, physics, and integrated biology and chemistry are undergoing revision. Earlier this week, actually, there was a long hearing before the Texas State Board of Education, where I believe hundreds of Texans complained about the absence of climate change from the revised version of the standards under consideration. we expect the board to make a final vote on these standards in November.

Host Raj Daniels  10:23

Earlier, something you said regarding knowledge and abilities. And I kind of feel like if we continue down this road, we’re going to fall into a similar situation that we fell into regarding technical skills. And what I mean by that is that, you know, there’s been this push towards, I’m gonna call it STEM education, technical learning software programming. In the past, I’m gonna say, five to six years. But, you know, we’ve experienced such a dearth in that skill set. What I’m seeing in whether you call it the climate change movement, or you know, the green tech, cleantech, is that the next 20 to 30 years are going to provide an immense financial opportunity, even, you know, from a jobs perspective, investment perspective. And I feel that if we don’t start introducing this language, or these opportunities to the children that are in school right now, then they are going to miss out on what’s been considered or called, a phenomenon. It’s going to dwarf the Industrial Revolution, and perhaps even the technology revolution.

Glenn Branch  11:30

I think that’s right. The NGSS were devised in part to include inquiry and learning. So moving away from the idea of rote learning, and rather have students learn through pursuing the scientific and technical and engineering questions in the way that scientists and engineers would. And it also has hooks for engineering education to be built into it. So it is primarily about science because they’re science standards. But the architects of NGSS did intend for it to be linkable, with a good technical and engineering education. I believe some states are trying to take full advantage of that. And I agree that will be very important for the future of green technology and sustainable technology in general, for students to feel equipped to understand and make contributions to the room.

Host Raj Daniels  12:28

So you mentioned where Texas stands. What are some of the states that are leading the way? And what kind of results have you seen from those states?

Glenn Branch  12:39

Well, it’s a bit early to say because science education in the United States is more like a freight train than a Ferrari. It’s not going to corner on a dime. States periodically revise their state science standards, usually in a five to seven-year cycle. So the next generation of science standards have a pretty good treatment of climate change. Some states do better. Massachusetts, New York, Wyoming, all have discernibly better treatments of climate change than NGSS. But if we could get all the states up to NGSS level, we would be in a much better position than we are now. I think it’s too soon to say how well this was working out. The states among the first to adopt NGSS would have done it in 2013. That’s too soon to know what a student who spent all their middle and high school to finish the process.

I agree that will be very important for the future of green technology and sustainable technology in general, for students to feel equipped to understand and make contributions to the room.

Host Raj Daniels  13:41

So let’s say they’re parents like myself, my peer group that are interested, and you mentioned, some of the action being taken place in Texas earlier this week. What are some things that we could do as parents to ensure that climate change is introduced into schools earlier?

Glenn Branch  13:57

Well, to make systemic change at the state level is very difficult, because these are big systems and there are big pressures against change. Although certainly, if-when we finish this discussion, you immediately fire off a letter to the person who represents you in the Texas State Board of Education calling for more climate change in the standards, I will hardily approve of that. There are things you can do locally with your own district in your own school.

In 2014, 2015, researchers from Penn State and from the National Center for Science Education conducted a national survey of middle and high school science educators trying to find out what they thought about climate change and how. This had got responses from 1500 educators across the country, so it was a rigorous national survey. There are various factors that influence whether or not a teacher presents climate change in a scientifically accurate way. One of them has to do with how much they themselves know about climate change. We found that something like half of these teachers had not had as much as one class session in college totally devoted to climate change. We found that 70% hadn’t taken any professional development devoted to climate change. So a lot of teachers thus feel underprepared to present climate change in a scientifically accurate way in the classroom.

We also found out that a major factor that influences whether these teachers presented climate change in a scientifically accurate way in their classroom was their perception of the community attitudes toward climate change. And that makes sense. These teachers live in communities, they get the sense that people in those communities are hostile to the teaching of climate change. It’s understandable that they tend to dial it back. But there’s also some indication that teachers tend to overestimate the degree of hostility to climate change in their communities.

From other surveys conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, we know that the level of support for climate change education across the country is quite high. Over 75%, even in Texas. Many teachers don’t know that or might think that they live in a little pocket where there’s a lot of hostility. But that may be just because the squeaky wheels are getting the grease. So even so small, a gesture as telling your children’s teachers, hey, I’m on board with what the scientists say about climate change. I’m happy with you presenting that scientific consensus in the classroom, you have my full support in doing it, that can make a difference. 

Host Raj Daniels  17:00

As a company, we’ve actually gone one step further than that. About two weeks ago, we released a comic strip that caters towards children, probably towards elementary age children more than anything else. It is a couple of characters that are discussing aspects of climate change, sustainability, green tech, technology, and even some of the projects that we’re working on. So that’s one step we’re taking. Earlier, you mentioned regarding professional development and teachers, it sounds like there’s an opportunity there. Does NCSE provide any professional development opportunities for teachers?

Glenn Branch  17:40

Yes, NCSE has been developing model lesson plans. These have been developed with scientific experts, master teachers, and other experts, including a cognitive psychologist. These are innovative in a number of ways. They’re using something called misconception based pedagogy, where teachers are told how to help their students recognize the misconceptions they bring to the classroom, and work through those misconceptions, deconstructing them and forming a scientifically accurate understanding of climate change on the basis. So we’re disseminating this in a number of ways, including through professional development. We have teacher ambassadors, as we call them, who are master teachers, some of whom helped develop the lessons or to refine them, who then take them back to their schools, their districts, their states, and present them at professional development conferences and workshops, and train their colleagues how to do that. So we hope to get a sort of snowball effect.

Host Raj Daniels  18:56

And how have you seen the reception for these programs? 

Glenn Branch  18:59

The reception has been quite good. we’re rolling out versions of these also for evolution and for the nature of science. The pandemic did, of course, put a spanner in the works for everybody. But we’ve been working on ways of revamping these lesson plans so they can be deliverable in an online context as well. 

Host Raj Daniels  19:22

Sounds like a good program. 

Glenn Branch  19:24

We like to think so.

Host Raj Daniels  19:25

So Glenn, I’m going to switch gears here and get to the crux of our conversation, which is the why behind what you do. My notes so that you’ve been with NCSE since 1999, so 21 years. So why NCSE and what’s kept you motivated or driven all these years?

Glenn Branch  19:45

I believe that every student deserves a sound science education, uncompromised by ideological attack by special interest groups. Whether those be creationists, climate change deniers or, the occasional flat earther.

Host Raj Daniels  20:01

Now that answer sounded perfect is sound like you’ve said it quite a bit. So I’m going to dig a little deeper. What keeps you going?

Glenn Branch  20:15

One reason I’ve been in this job so long is I think it’s important work. And I enjoy doing it. There’s a lot of variety, there’s a lot of interesting things that come up. There’s always an opportunity for movement and growth.

Host Raj Daniels  20:33

I see that you have a background in philosophy, several of my guests have either a background or interest in philosophy. Do you think that your background in philosophy helped you or perhaps influenced you in your current line of work?

Glenn Branch  20:47

I think it’s certainly helped. Philosophical training focuses on critical analysis and being able to think through complicated problems and identify underlying assumptions. And that’s the kind of thing that can be useful in a wide variety of contexts, of course, but I found it particularly useful in the person I work at NCSE.

I believe that every student deserves a sound science education, uncompromised by ideological attack by special interest groups.

Host Raj Daniels  21:08

So 20 years with NSE. What are some of the valuable lessons that you say you’ve learned on your journey?

Glenn Branch  21:16

I’ve learned a lot about the radically decentralized education system in the United States. And I find that most people are kind of unaware of how the education system works if they’re not actually involved in it. There are a lot of moving parts. When I talk to reporters who don’t specialize in education, I by now have developed the five-minute little spiel in which I kind of discuss the various sources of influence and control that goes on in American education. And people are often very surprised. For example, Raj, how many local school districts do you suppose there are in the United States,

Host Raj Daniels  21:57

I’m going to go out on a limb here is a 3000 

Glenn Branch  21:59

13,500.

Host Raj Daniels  22:01

Wow. 

Glenn Branch  22:02

These all have a fair amount of autonomy when it comes to curriculum and instruction. And they don’t really report to any central authority. So one reason that bad pedagogical practices—teaching creationism or climate change denial—can go on for so long, is because if everyone in the district is okay with it, then it persists.

Host Raj Daniels  22:26

So this is where my ignorance comes to light, because he said they don’t report to one particular system. My ignorance says that the Department of Education would be the system they report to,

Glenn Branch  22:37

The Federal Department of Education has, by customers statute, no authority over curriculum and instruction. This is all down to the states as part of federalism. And then these states have, over the years, an increasing amount of control over what goes on at the district level, but it’s still not a very tight ring. And of course, education is largely funded by local property taxes, which tends to keep things under local control and to perpetuate inequities in education as well.

Host Raj Daniels  23:11

So you mentioned your five minute spiel, and you talked about the 13,500 school districts. What’s the rest of the spiel?

Glenn Branch  23:19

I gave part of it and discussing the importance of state science standards. There’s also how these standards work their way down to the classroom. Typically, districts develop curriculum, based on the standards, which are intended to make sure teachers using these curricula can accomplish the goals of the standards. And then schools or individual teachers develop lesson plans, matching the curriculum. So there are layers here. And then their issues of a textbook. Some states adopt textbooks, at the state level, other ones leave the districts to decide which textbooks to use, as statewide testing is also a further can of worms.

Host Raj Daniels  24:02

Yes, it is. You said that, if I understood correctly, we haven’t been able to measure because the children haven’t progressed all the way through the school system yet with some of the programs. What would success look like five years from now for the NCSE.

Glenn Branch  24:16

So successful NCSE would, I think, largely consist of keeping on keeping on. A lot of our work is reactive. For example, fighting against misguided legislation or misguided revisions to state science standards that would compromise their scientific integrity. Some of it involves giving advice to particular individual teachers or students or families that are facing attacks on science education in their own communities. So that reactive stuff all needs to keep on happening. But we also want to make progress in getting these model lesson plans out and widely adopted because we’re in the process of acquiring evidence of their effectiveness. There will be some papers in the peer-reviewed literature to this effect. And we also hope in five years, we’re going to see a lot more states that have science standards as good as or better than the NGSS on evolution and climate change.

Host Raj Daniels  25:20

So you mentioned advice to teachers and parents. If you could share some advice or words of wisdom with the audience, what would it be, but if you could layer that, specifically, perhaps teachers, parents, and in general, I’d really appreciate it.

Glenn Branch  25:33

In general, hug a science teacher. Metaphorically.

Science teachers are on the frontlines as much as anyone is in this environment over honoring our frontline responders. And remember, the majority of our fellow citizens are going to have only high school education. So for the majority of our fellow citizens, the high school science teacher, is the last authoritative formal source of science education they’re going to get. And that’s a huge responsibility in an ever more technically demanding world in which things like climate change are going to be increasingly important in any number of ways.

So science teachers particularly do need our support, whether or not you have children in public schools. And that can be manifested in a number of ways. Words of encouragement are good. Something tangible in the way of funding for school activities, or field trips, as I discussed in that piece in The New York Times, would be even more welcome. And of course support at the ballot box or by testifying before boards of education, and this sort of thing. For what parents, in particular, can do? Really, to be actively involved with their children’s education. To talk to the teachers, and not only the science teachers, and see what you can do, to work with them to make sure that children receive the best education that they can.

…the majority of our fellow citizens are going to have only high school education. So for the majority of our fellow citizens, the high school science teacher, is the last authoritative formal source of science education they’re going to get.

www.ncse.gov

Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.

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Raj Daniels