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Teachers Pick Up Tips For Enhancing Topic of Evolution in Class

Forum helps educators deal with questions that perplex many students.
By Sean Cavanagh — August 06, 2009 7 min read
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Stacey Falk is a high school biology teacher who revels in covering the theory of evolution in class. She is also a Roman Catholic who attends church every week.

To some of her students, that makes her a curiosity.

It’s not unusual for them to ask whether scientific and religious convictions are compatible. Ms. Falk, like many people of science, and of faith, believes they are. She recently attended a teachers’ workshop that examined that question and covered scientific content and instructional strategies aimed at helping her and other science teachers explain the theory of evolution more fully to their students.

Every summer, science teachers across the country disperse to professional-development seminars, hoping to pick up ideas for lessons and labs they can bring back to their classrooms. The weeklong workshop Ms. Falk attended here in late July, run by the University of Pittsburgh, was one of the yearly forums focused on evolution, a topic that continues to prove controversial and confusing in classrooms, despite its overwhelming acceptance by scientists.

The Pennsylvania workshop drew 13 secondary science teachers from public and private schools in the state. Like Ms. Falk, a 27-year-old who teaches at South Park High School in suburban Pittsburgh, other attendees said they saw a chance to gather new ideas for presenting evolution in class.

Lost in Language

They also sought advice on dealing with oft-stated misconceptions about the core scientific theory. That support for evolution is akin to atheism, for instance. Or that humans evolved from chimpanzees, rather than both species having descended from a common ancestor.

Some students “are misinformed about the concept. They take a societal view that it’s bad, without knowing a lot about it,” Ms. Falk said. In class, the teacher said she tells students, “I want you to ask questions. It’s a good thing.”

In preparation for an experiment, teachers sort live snails from empty shells, an activity they can replicate in school.

If students ask, she will describe her religious background and her support for evolution—the two are not deemed incompatible by her church—but she also says she tells them: “What we’re studying is science. I can’t experiment with [teaching] religion.”

The workshop was held at a wooded campsite used for ecological study, near the shores of Pymtuning Lake, north of Pittsburgh. Presentations by university researchers, K-12 teachers, and others took place throughout the week on scientific, historical, and legal issues surrounding evolution. One discussion centered on the attempt by the school board in Dover, Pa., halfway across the state, to expose students to “intelligent design,” a policy deemed unconstitutional by a federal court in 2005. (“Possible Road Map Seen in Dover Case,” Jan. 4, 2006.)

The teachers also took part in activities and experiments aimed at explaining the way evolution works—teaching tools they can bring back to their classes.

On the first day, the teachers gathered inside a camp building and wrote their names on a board at the front of a meeting room. John Hammond, a research associate at the University of Pittsburgh, began a presentation by describing the scientific method, covering the rules and processes of science.

He discussed how the language of science can confuse the public, and by extension, students. Scientists, for example, avoid describing concepts as “proven,” Mr. Hammond said, because under certain conditions, even very well-established phenomena such as gravity are not proved. A more precise scientist would say that something is “well-supported” by evidence.

Science and Religion

Yet such distinctions also sow confusion, Mr. Hammond explained. A common critique of evolution is to call it “just a theory,” meaning a hunch. But to scientists, a theory is a thorough explanation backed up by multiple sources of evidence.

In the press, “you hear people [give] sound bites back and forth,” Mr. Hammond said, without explaining the evidence “that supports what they’re saying.”

Similarly, scientists avoid discussing “belief” as it pertains to their work, though such language is the norm in describing faith, Mr. Hammond said. Science seeks to help people make sense of the natural world. Religion examines questions of “why we are here” and how we should live, he suggested.

High school science teachers examine a crayfish as part of a workshop on teaching concepts for evolution.

“Science, to me,” Mr. Hammond said, “is a different set of questions than what religion is.”

That perspective resonated with the teachers. One educator told the group that problems emerge when students learn of particular evolutionary concepts, like common ancestry, that they see as a threat to their faith.

Another teacher said that parents appear to see a conflict between evolution and faith where students do not.

And too many students, a third teacher added, struggle to grasp the distinctions between science and religion, as described by Mr. Hammond.

“They’re stuck in the context of one framework,” she said.

While some scientists see support for evolution as incompatible with religious belief, many do not. Francis S. Collins, who is known for his work mapping the human genome and is President Barack Obama’s choice to lead the National Institutes of Health, has often spoken of his view that evolution is consistent with his evangelical Christian beliefs. Kenneth Miller, a prominent Brown University biologist and textbook author, has made a similar point in describing the theory’s compatibility with his Catholicism.

In Mr. Hammond’s view, teachers can talk about their faith in class if they feel comfortable doing so, and can do it a controlled way that leads to a discussion of what is and is not science. Other teachers may feel those discussions aren’t appropriate, he said.

Yet he also said he understands the pressures that science teachers face in discussing evolution. One option for Pennsylvania educators, when challenged by students or parents about evolution, he said, is to point out that the state’s academic standards call for the topic to be taught. Mr. Hammond said he’s heard of some Pennsylvania districts’ creating guidelines for how teachers should respond to such challenges; other districts tell teachers to let school administrators deal with those objections.To help educators sort through those questions, the National Science Teachers Association, in Arlington, Va., has arranged numerous workshops over the years on how to cover evolution.

One past NSTA presenter is Lee Meadows, an associate professor of science education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His book The Missing Link: An Inquiry Approach for Teaching All Students About Evolution is scheduled to be published soon by Heinemann.

Some teachers hope to persuade students to “believe” in evolution, reasoning that “if kids really understand it, they’ll believe it,” said Mr. Meadows. He sees that approach as misguided, given many students’ religious convictions.

A better strategy, he argued, is to take students through a process—describing the evidence for evolution, showing that evidence, and asking students to explain it using the rules and language of science. “I want kids to understand the preponderance of evidence for evolution,” said Mr. Meadows, who nonetheless believes they will develop their own views about “what’s true with a capital T.”

A Snapshot

Even so, explaining the nature of the evidence for evolution is difficult, teachers at the Pennsylvania workshop said. Many evolutionary processes play out over thousands

and millions of years. Evidence from the fossil record, molecular biology, and other areas can seem incomprehensible to students.

“It’s very rare that you meet someone at the student level who has a firm grasp of it,” remarked Adam DeDionisio, a private school teacher from Erie, Pa., and a workshop attendee. “If we can’t see something, we have trouble making sense of abstract things.”

Biology teacher Stacey Falk watches crayfish fight at a teacher workshop on evolution.

Mr. Hammond set out to show the teachers that mechanisms of evolution, such as natural selection, can be presented in a simple, engaging, and condensed fashion. He and other workshop staff members led the educators through an experiment to test snails’ survivability—or their superior selective traits—when put in a container with crayfish, the snails’ predators.

The first step is collecting the snails, so the teachers loaded up in cars and headed to a farm a few miles from camp.

After pulling on waist-high rubber pants, the teachers waded into a murky pond coated with Wolffia, a grainy green couscous of vegetation. Ms. Falk, Mr. DeDionisio, and the others slogged through the water, carrying large plastic containers and cups and scooping up snails, spiders, and other tiny pond dwellers.

The experiment is appealing because it can be replicated in the teachers’ schools, university officials say. In addition to that activity, scientific organizations recommend labs use flies, plants, and other lab specimens to show long-term evolutionary processes in short-term, simplified form.

For Ms. Falk of South Park High, the goal is to find points of entry into what can be a puzzling concept.

“Students can’t see [evolution],” Ms. Falk said. “That’s the hard thing to grasp.” As a result, when discussing the fossil record, “you get resistance,” she said. “But I don’t mind that.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week

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