When Water, Ecology, and Agriculture are Left Out: What You Need to Know About the Proposed PA Science Standards

This week, an email came through my inbox from the PA Association of Environmental Educators with the subject, “TOMORROW – Town Hall: PA Proposed Science Standards.” My interests were peaked.

Last Winter, pre-pandemic, I spent a fair amount of time preparing watershed-based lesson plans I could propose to area schools. I remember reading through the existing PA Science Standards and thinking to myself, “Wow, Pennsylvania is lightyears ahead when it comes to including environment and ecology education in comparison to West Virginia.” I had spent 4 years teaching outdoor education in my home state of West Virginia before moving to Pennsylvania and taking on the role as Outreach Coordinator for Mountain Watershed Association.

In a lesson about pH and abandoned mine drainage, these students used the “Red Cabbage Experiment”

What is Happening?

The existing PA Standards for Environment and Ecology include the Core Ideas of:

  • Watersheds and Wetlands
  • Renewable and Nonrenewable Resources
  • Environmental Health
  • Agriculture and Society
  • Integrated Pest Management
  • Ecosystems and their interactions
  • Threatened, Endangered, and Extinct Species
  • Humans and the Environment
  • Environmental Laws and Regulations

These Core Ideas cover a wide range of environmental issues and give students a broad view into the world around us and how we interact and change that world. As stated in the existing Standards,

Environment and Ecology places its main emphasis in the real world. It allows students to understand, through a sound academic content base, how their everyday lives evolve around their use of the natural world and the resources it provides. As we move into a more technologically driven society, it is crucial for every student to be aware of his/her dependence on a healthy environment. The 2lst century will demand a more sophisticated citizen capable of making sound decisions that will impact our natural systems forever.

PA Environment and Ecology Standards, 2002.

The proposed Pennsylvania Integrated Standards for Science, Environment, and Ecology (6-12) do not include the above Core Ideas. In fact, there is no mention of watersheds or wetlands.

You may be wondering if the Department of Education plans on drafting a separate set of Standards for Environment and Ecology. I had the same flicker of hope. As it turns out, the Pennsylvania State Board of Education approved the following revisions in Annex A on September 9, 2020.

A screenshot of the Annex A General Revisions document

Lessons previously centered around watersheds and wetlands have been condensed to objectives within the Earth System Core Idea.

The closest connections to water you can find in the revised Standards are:

  • Develop a model to describe the cycling of water through Earth’s systems driven by energy from the sun and the force of gravity. (6-8)
  • Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for how the uneven distributions of Earth’s mineral, energy, and groundwater resources are the result of past and current geoscience processes. (6-8)
  • Plan and conduct an investigation of the properties of water and its effects on Earth materials and surface processes. (9-12)

There is no mention within the proposed objectives to learn about Pennsylvania’s streams, how they flow, what they contain, how they support life, or how humans can impact the quality of clean water in this state.

Students observe a creek that has been impacted by abandoned mine drainage.

As if this isn’t already alarming enough to raise some red flags, there is absolutely no mention of agriculture, environmental laws and regulations, threatened/endangered/extinct species, and environmental health.

The best links I can create from these current Core Ideas to objectives listed in the revised plan are as follows:


  • Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for the role of photosynthesis in the cycling of matter and flow of energy into and out of organisms. (6-8)
  • Develop a model to describe how food is rearranged through chemical reactions forming new molecules that support growth and/or release energy as this matter moves through an organism. (6-8)
  • Gather and synthesize information about the technologies that have changed the way humans influence the inheritance of desired traits in organisms. (6-8)
  • Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for the effects of resource availability on organisms and populations of organisms in an ecosystem. (6-8)
  • Use arguments based on empirical evidence and scientific reasoning to support an explanation for how characteristic animal behaviors and specialized plant structures affect the probability of successful reproduction of animals and plants, respectively. (6-8)
  • Use a model to illustrate how photosynthesis transforms light energy into stored chemical energy. (9-12)
  • Develop a model to illustrate the role of photosynthesis and cellular respiration in the cycling of carbon among the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere. (9-12)
  • Evaluate the evidence for the role of group behavior on individual and species’ chances to survive and reproduce. (9-12)

Environmental Laws and Regulations/ Environmental Health

  • Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing human impact on the environment. (6-8)
  • Construct an argument supported by evidence for how increases in human population and per capita consumption of natural resources impact Earth’s systems. (6-8)
  • Construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations. (6-8)
  • Gather and make sense of information to describe that synthetic materials come from natural resources and impact society. (6-8)
  • Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity. (9-12)
  • Create a computational simulation to illustrate the relationships among management of natural resources, the sustainability of human populations, and biodiversity. (9-12)
  • Create or revise a simulation to test a solution to mitigate adverse impacts of human activity on biodiversity. (9-12)
  • Use a computational representation to illustrate the relationships among Earth systems and how those relationships are being modified due to human activity. (9-12)
  • Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity. (9-12)
  • Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems. (9-12)

Threatened/Endangered/Extinct Species

  • Evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services. (6-8)
  • Construct an explanation that predicts patterns of interactions among organisms across multiple ecosystems. (6-8)
  • Evaluate the evidence supporting claims that changes in environmental conditions may result in (1) increases in the number of individuals of some species, (2) the emergence of new species over time, and (3) the extinction of other species. (9-12)
  • Use mathematical and/or computational representations to support explanations of factors that affect carrying capacity of ecosystems at different scales. (9-12)
  • Use mathematical representations to support and revise explanations based on evidence about factors affecting biodiversity and populations in ecosystems of different scales. (9-12)
  • Evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning that the complex interactions in ecosystems maintain relatively consistent numbers and types of organisms in stable conditions, but changing conditions may result in a new ecosystem. (9-12)
  • Apply concepts of statistics and probability to support explanations that organisms with an advantageous heritable trait tend to increase in proportion to organisms lacking this trait. (9-12)

Please, keep in mind I am forming loose connections between the above objectives and the missing Core Ideas on Environment and Ecology.

After reading through the above objectives, think about the language used to describe the intent of each: evaluate the evidence, construct an argument, construct an explanation, design a model. This wording makes sense, considering the Stakeholder Feedback rated scientific literacy, problem-solving, and critical thinking as the highest ranking skills the updated Standards should impact. Of 1,283 responses, creativity (3 votes), curiosity (2 votes), and independence (1 vote) ranked in the lowest skills.

I am willing to bet you most outdoor/environmental educators will rank creativity, curiosity, and independence higher on the list of skills that science and environmental education should impact. How can we expect students to engage in finding solutions for environmental issues when they can’t make the connections between how they interact with and impact their surroundings. Ambition to create solutions stems from an interest and investment in the problems.

I did a few 45-minute programs with an afterschool care program. Our option for outdoor time was to climb up a steep, forested hillside. A majority of the kids were TERRIFIED of climbing the hill. By the time our hour had ended, all of the kids were relaxed and excited about the adventure they created. Curiosity of seeing ephemeral streams coming out of the hillside and wondering where the water flows led to an impromptu lesson on springtime streams. Curiosity sparks interest in science and leads to students engaging in creative solutions to issues.

According to the Stakeholder Feedback document, “…the updated standards should have an impact on the community: “decreases public health concerns,” “students active in civic engagement and agriculture jobs in PA,” and “increased volunteerism throughout PA communities and in public lands.””

This seems to be a peculiar ask within the new Standards considering there is no specific emphasis on environmental health and agriculture. Even more peculiar, Stakeholders concluded the highest ranked disposition that all students should learn is resilience while being an ethical advocate is seen as the lowest priority within the group surveyed.

Chart from the Stakeholder Feedback

According to the American Psychological Association, psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors.

Perhaps, when prioritizing resiliency we should consider the importance of becoming an advocate for yourself and your community, letting ethics and morals steer your civic engagement. With this mindset, we could shift our focus from resiliency as we shift our actions into alleviating the adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, and significant stress within our communities.

When we look at the map provided in the Feedback for locations where Stakeholder Sessions were held, we can see an overlap of session locations and population clusters in the state.

The map above shows the district locations of the Stakeholder Sessions. The map below shows population density within PA, with red areas showing population clusters.

Furthermore, we can compare the locations of Stakeholder Sessions with the PA map for Environmental Justice (EJ) Areas. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection defines an EJ Area as, “any census tract where 20 percent or more individuals live at or below the federal poverty line, and/or 30 percent or more of the population identifies as a non-white minority, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the federal guidelines for poverty.”

The map above shows the district locations of the Stakeholder Sessions. The map below shows Environmental Justice areas in green.

You could argue that rural areas within Pennsylvania which see high poverty rates were not included when asking for input on the proposed Standards. You can also gather that non-white minority populations were not adequately represented within the process. The Stakeholder Feedback gives no mention of diversity, but a quick search of the 17-member Steering Committee proves less than a quarter of participants were non-white.

How Important is Environmental Education?

I could argue a well-rounded focus on Environmental Education is more important now than it was in 2002, when the current Standards were adopted.

Looking through the current PA Academic Standards for Environment and Ecology, we can see the valuable education these objectives provide.

Environmental Laws and Regulations

  • Explain the role of environmental laws and regulations. (6-8)
  • Identify and explain environmental laws and regulations (e.g., Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Recycling and Waste Reduction Act, Act 26 on Agricultural Education). (6-8)
  • Explain the role of local and state agencies in enforcing environmental laws and regulations (e.g., Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Agriculture, Game Commission). (6-8)
  • Explain why environmental laws and regulations are developed and enacted. (9-12)
  • Understand conflicting rights of property owners and environmental laws and regulations. (9-12)
  • Analyze and explain how issues lead to environmental law or regulation (e.g., underground storage tanks, regulation of water discharges, hazardous, solid and liquid industrial waste, endangered species). (9-12)
  • Analyze the roles that local, state and federal governments play in the development and enforcement of environmental laws. (9-12)

Environmental Health

  • Identify various examples of long-term pollution and explain their effects on environmental health. (6-8)
  • Identify diseases that have been associated with poor environmental quality. (6-8)
  • Describe different types of pest controls and their effects on the environment. (6-8)
  • Identify alternative products that can be used in life to reduce pollution. (6-8)
  • Identify residential and industrial sources of pollution and their effects on environmental health. (6-8)
  • Explain the difference between point and nonpoint source pollution. (6-8)
  • Explain how nonpoint source pollution can affect the water supply and air quality. (6-8)
  • Identify the effects on human health of air, water and soil pollution and the possible economic costs to society. (9-12)
  • Explain the costs and benefits of cleaning up contaminants.
  • Describe the impact of occupational exposures as they relate to environmental health issues. (9-12)
  • Identify invisible pollutants and explain their effects on human health. (9-12)
  • Explain the different disposal methods used for toxic and hazardous waste. (9-12)
  • Explain biological diversity as an indicator of a healthy environment. (9-12)
  • Research the relationship of some chronic diseases to an environmental pollutant. (9-12)

Threatened/Endangered/Extinct Species

  • Explain how living things respond to changes in their environment. (6-8)
  • Explain how one species may survive an environmental change while another might not. (6-8)
  • Identify natural or human impacts that cause habitat loss. (6-8)
  • Explain how habitat loss can affect the interaction among species and the population of a species. (6-8)
  • Explain the differences among threatened, endangered and extinct species. (6-8)
  • Identify Pennsylvania plants and animals that are on the threatened or endangered list. (6-8)
  • Describe state laws passed regarding threatened and endangered species in Pennsylvania. (6-8)
  • Identify a species and explain what effects its increase or decline might have on the ecosystem. (9-12)
  • Identify a species and explain how its adaptations are related to its niche in the environment. (9-12)
  • Explain the relationship between species’ loss and bio-diversity. (9-12) Examine the effects of extinction, both natural and human caused, on the environment. (9-12)
  • Identify and explain how a species’ increase, decline or elimination affects the ecosystem and/or human social, cultural and economic structures. (9-12)
  • Explain why natural populations do not remain constant. (9-12)
  • Analyze management strategies regarding threatened or endangered species. (9-12)

Compare these current objectives to the proposed objectives. The basics of understanding the world around us is lacking in the proposed Standards.

What happens now with Agriculture Education?

I was shocked to find absolutely no mention of agriculture in the proposed Standards. With a state as influenced by agriculture as Pennsylvania, we could expect to have middle and high school curriculum prioritize the importance of understanding our local food systems.

Many rural schools have a heavy emphasis on agriculture education through Future Farmers of America and 4H programs. Without agriculture objectives adopted into our Science Standards, schools lack the incentive to teach classes with objectives not required for grade-level completion and graduation. According to the Commission for Agricultural Education Excellence, “Agriculture is a $135 billion industry facing an aging workforce.” In that case, why would we strip agriculture education from Pennsylvania schools?

Here are some of the aspects of learning how to grow and care for your own food and understanding the importance of local food systems within the global food economy.


  • Identify the plants and animals that can be raised in the area and explain why. (6-8)
  • Identify natural resources necessary for agricultural systems. (6-8)
  • Explain how energy sources have changed to meet agricultural technology. (6-8)
  • Compare the need for crop production to the need for animal production. (9-12)
  • Compare and analyze the cost of a commodity to its production cost. (9-12)
  • Identify and describe how food safety issues have impacted production in agriculture. (9-12)
  • Analyze and research the social, political and economic factors that affect agricultural systems. (9-12)
  • Analyze the costs and benefits associated with agriculture practices and how they affect economic and human needs. (9-12)
  • Compare various technological advancements and analyze each for its contribution toward labor and cost efficiency. (9-12)

Learning about, creating, and valuing local gardens, farms, and food is important to prioritize. When stating the goals to impact communities by decreasing public health concerns, increasing volunteerism, and activating students in civic engagement and agriculture jobs, there needs to be a solid focus on water, ecology, environmental health, and agriculture.

What can I do?

By this time, I imagine you are ready for some actions you can take. And, please, be sure to take action.

Currently, the proposed Standards are on the Attorney General’s desk. The Standards will either be approved then transitioned to a public comment period OR the Standards will be denied and sent back to Committee.

Now is our time to speak up.

  1. Spread the word. Tell parents of students, teachers of students, AND the students. Encourage everyone to share this information. Most educators are unaware of these changes. Share the information now.
  2. Make your voice heard. Send a letter directly to the Attorney General. Encourage organizations to sign-on to this letter.
  3. Speak out! Write letters to the editor. Mail postcards to elected officials. Submit a public comment if the Standards are approved.
  4. Involve Students. Let the 6th-12th grade students in your life know about these changes and ask them how they feel. If they feel inspired, ask them to speak out. They can write letters and submit comments too. Ask them to share the information with their teachers.

This is a developing call to action. Organizations like the Pennsylvania Association for Environmental Educators and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have already started organizing ways people can get involved so be sure to sign up for their mailing lists. We will continue to share information as we learn more.

Today, let’s speak out for the future of our children, animals, food, land, and water.