Students in Alabama will be required to learn about climate change and evolution for the first time next year, after officials announced an overhaul of the state's science education standards.
Until now, teachers in the state weren't required to teach climate change, evolution and other locally controversial topics. Textbooks used in Alabama science classes have for years carried disclaimer stickers stating that evolution is a "controversial theory," not fact. The new course of study, announced on Thursday, doesn't eliminate those warnings, which were originally advocated by Christian conservatives.
But the updated standards do directly support the teaching of evolution, along with the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and humans are the likely cause. Students will now be required to use scientific evidence to "support the hypotheses of common ancestry and biological evolution," according to the standards, and to analyze humanity's impact on the planet and the resulting climate change.
The changes were drafted by a 40-member committee over the course of three years -- including some people with "very strong religious beliefs," Michal Robinson, a science specialist for the state education agency, told The Associated Press.
The new curriculum will help improve scientific literacy in the state, where only 21 percent of 10th-graders meet or exceed national science testing standards. Alabama ranked 37th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in average ACT science scores last year.
The changes were unanimously approved by the Republican-controlled Alabama State Board of Education. This is the first update to the state's science standards since 2005.
The standards will officially go into effect during the summer of 2016. But Steve Ricks, director of the Alabama Department of Education's math and science initiative, told The Huffington Post that the state is being "extremely proactive" and rolling out the guidelines immediately.
The new science will also be accompanied by updated teaching methods that give students a hands-on education extending beyond the textbook. Science classes will soon see a dramatic shift from traditional "knowledge regurgitation," Ricks said, to "higher-order thinking standards."
"The new course of study makes a major shift in the way teachers need to teach," Ricks said. "No longer can a teacher take a textbook and have students just read it and answer questions. It'll require [students] to be doing science, investigating, to be actively engaged."
"We still have to teach what the science is," Robinson told the AP. "If students want to go into a science field in college or beyond, they have to have a foundation."
Ricks said that while the plans might not roll out perfectly, students will be getting a far better education next year. The state has already launched a program to train teachers in the new material, and he said there's already "a lot of enthusiasm."
As for those stickers? A committee that will review science texts for compliance with the new standards could consider whether to remove or alter them, officials said. A public hearing is set for Nov. 9 in Montgomery.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.