The Worrying State of Science Education

The evolution of teaching evolution

Ask any high school biology instructor: Teaching kids about evolution is a science.

Students’ reactions to the theory of how life evolved on earth are as diverse as the species on this planet. Teens tense up and become confrontational, their religious beliefs cause them to reject lessons about natural selection and adaptation outright, or they simply shut down.

To help his students understand why evolution is widely accepted by scientists, Jeremy Mohn, who’s taught the controversial subject for more than a decade at Blue Valley Northwest High School near Kansas City, discusses different viewpoints, including creationism and intelligent design.

“You have to take the time to address these types of nonscientific concerns,” said Mohn, who writes about his experiences at Biology teachers face different concerns than other science teachers, he said. “You don’t have people in a chemistry classroom who have been raised to believe that the periodic table comes from the devil and that if they believe in it they are going to go to hell.”

Mohn is part of an influential group of teachers and scientists pushing to dispel misconceptions about evolution—such as that humans descended from apes—and to more effectively communicate what many consider the lynchpin of biology.

They have their work cut out for them. A recent article in Science found that almost three out of four high school students will get no schooling in evolutionary biology, or a version “fraught with misinformation.”

And current opinion polls show eight out of 10 Americans believe God created humans in their present form or guided the process of human evolution—a figure that has changed little over the last 30 years.

Teachers not pushing evolution?

One of the biggest challenges to improving evolution education may just be the teachers themselves.

A recent survey of 926 public high school biology teachers has revealed that nearly three out of four are not aggressively endorsing evolution.

According to the survey, only about 28 percent of biology teachers are strong advocates for evolution and “consistently implement the major recommendations and conclusions of the National Research Council.”

Thirteen percent are just the opposite, and explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design.

Most teachers, called the “cautious 60 percent,” told interviewers that they are “neither strong advocates for evolutionary biology nor explicit endorsers of nonscientific alternatives.”

Frustrated by these numbers, many biologists are opening up, says Louise Mead, education director for the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, which is headquartered at Michigan State University.

“Evolutionary biologists used to just put a hand up whenever people brought up the evolution controversy,” she said. “But there’s been a realization that we have to address the misconceptions. There has been a renewed focus on how we teach evolution and renewed outreach.”

Mead and other advocates for revamping evolution education conduct sold-out workshops for teachers where they strategize how to address questions about the controversial topic.

“Teachers mostly want to increase their knowledge, which increases their confidence to teach evolution,” said Judy Scotchmoor, assistant director of the University of California Museum of Paleontology and contributor to its popular web portal “Understanding Evolution.”

The site is but one example of an explosion in the amount of material available to teachers that followed a 2005 federal court ruling, which found that intelligent design—the idea that life is so complex, a higher being must have created it—could not be taught as an accepted scientific theory.

Creationists continue efforts to persuade school boards to teach alternative theories to the method described by 19th-century biologist Charles Darwin, even as state science standards cover evolution more extensively than they did 10 years ago, according to an August 2009 review conducted by Mead and Anton Mates.

But although the treatment of biological evolution has improved, Mead and Mates found, only seven states and the District of Columbia provide a “comprehensive treatment of human evolution” in their science standards.

And scholars agree that much of the wealth of information on evolution—including major textbooks used in school districts nationwide—is riddled with inaccuracies that perpetuate stereotypes, such as that animals change purposefully over time.

With these challenges firmly in mind, scientists and teachers are pushing to make evolution the backbone of biology lesson-plans from kindergarten through high school.

Their first order of business: Convincing administrators that evolution isn’t too complex to be introduced in elementary school in hopes that starting early will build a foundation for more students to grasp difficult concepts in middle and high school.

“A lot of people think kids are not capable of sophisticated thinking about complicated science concepts,” said Nancy Songer, a professor of science education and learning technologies at the University of Michigan. “But all our research indicates this is simply not true.”

Songer designed BioKIDS, an evolution curriculum tested by educators in 22 Detroit public schools. Teachers credit the program with renewing their students’ interest in science, as well as improving their scores on Michigan’s standardized science tests.

Instead of requiring kids to memorize facts in a textbook, the program moves them outside, where they chart the lifecycles and food chains of local wildlife. They use this information to build scientific explanations by making claims, giving their reasoning and presenting their evidence.

Using the BioKIDS curriculum, Detroit middle-school teacher Connie Atkisson’s sixth-graders   placed playing cards with pictures of local animals according to their physical characteristics on a big piece of butcher paper to create a “wall of life.”

Photo by Eugene Zelenko

Watching local animals and insects evolve outside the classroom also left a deeper impact on her students than looking at pictures in a textbook. For example, on a field trip to an oil field, of all places, her kids were astounded when they saw a colorful damselfly plying the breezes. They previously experimented with the insect back at school in its nymph stage, concluding it was a “boring black bug.”

“They were so engaged,” said Atkisson. “They took the information and said ‘we are little scientists, this is what scientists do.’”

Other pioneering efforts to teach evolution to elementary students—such as a fourth-grade curriculum, Evolution Readiness, created by the Concord Consortium in Massachusetts—attempt to build scientific-reasoning skills through technology.

The project—being tested in four schools in three districts in Massachusetts, Missouri and Texas—uses computers to show students that evolution is a process through which systems change from one thing to another and get better along the way, said Paul Horwitz, a senior scientist at the consortium.

In one experiment, fourth-graders click on a virtual greenhouse where they’re asked to find the light conditions under which different types of plants thrive. Through these activities, students learn several tenets of evolution, including selectivity, inheritance and variation, Horwitz said.

And the curriculum’s hands-on nature helps kids both remember what they’ve learned and perform better on tests designed specifically to monitor whether they can explain why changes occurred, Horwitz said.

Horwitz and Songer found their curricula required more up-front training for educators—particularly elementary-school teachers who may not have backgrounds in science—and created thorny classroom-management issues.

“One of the teachers told us she went home and cried the first year,” Horwitz recalled.

And although they’re pleased with the success of their experiments, they concede that expanding the programs is a tall order.

“We’ve been asked to scale all our programs to all elementary and middle schools in Detroit and we’re trying to figure out if that’s even possible,” Songer said. “We’re not publishers and professional-development people—we’re not in the business of scaling this to a state or full large district.”

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Jennifer Oldham

Jennifer Oldham is a freelance writer based in California. Previously, Oldham was a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, where she covered aviation, local… See Archive