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Science teachers' methods evolveto not drive off faithful students

David Campbell switched on the overhead projector and wrote “Evolution” in the rectangle of light on the screen.

He scanned the faces of the sophomores in his Biology I class. Many of them, he knew from years of teaching high school in this Jacksonville suburb, had been raised to take the biblical creation story as truth. His gaze rested for a moment on Bryce Haas, a football player who attended the 6a.m. prayer meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the school gymnasium.

In February, the state Department of Education modified its standards to explicitly require, for the first time, public schools to teach evolution, calling it “the organizing principle of life science.” Spurred in part by legal rulings against districts seeking to favor religious versions of natural history, over a dozen other states have also given more emphasis in recent years to what has long been the scientific consensus: that all of the diverse life forms on Earth descended from a common ancestor, through a process of mutation and natural selection, over billions of years.

But in a nation where evangelical Protestantism and other Christian traditions stress a literal reading of the biblical description of God individually creating each species, students often arrive at school fearing that evolution, and perhaps science itself, is hostile to their faith.

Some come armed with “Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution,” a document circulated on the Internet that highlights supposed weaknesses in evolutionary theory. Others scrawl their opposition on homework assignments.

With a mandate to teach evolution but little guidance as to how, science teachers are contriving their own ways to turn a culture war into a lesson plan. How they fare may bear on whether a new generation of Americans embraces scientific evidence alongside religious belief.

“If you see something you don't understand, you have to ask ‘why?' or ‘how?'” Campbell often admonished his students at Ridgeview High School.

Yet their abiding mistrust in evolution, he feared, jeopardized their belief in the basic power of science to explain the natural world – and their ability to make sense of it themselves.

Passionate on the subject, Campbell had helped to devise the state's new evolution standards, which will be phased in starting this fall. A former Navy flight instructor not used to pulling his punches, he fought hard for their passage. But with his students this spring, he found himself treading carefully, as he tried to bridge an ideological divide that stretches well beyond his classroom. He started with Mickey Mouse.

On the projector, Campbell placed slides of the cartoon icon: one at his skinny genesis in 1928; one from his 1940 turn as the impish Sorcerer's Apprentice; and another of the rounded, ingratiating charmer of Mouse Club fame.

“How,” he asked his students, “has Mickey changed?”

They waved their hands and called out answers.

“His tail gets shorter,” Bryce volunteered.

“Bigger eyes!” someone else shouted.

“He looks happier,” one girl observed. “And cuter.”

Campbell smiled. “Mickey evolved,” he said. “And Mickey gets cuter because Walt Disney makes more money that way. That is ‘selection.'”

Later, he would get to the touchier part, about how the minute changes in organisms that drive biological change arise spontaneously, without direction. And how a struggle for existence among naturally varying individuals has helped to generate every species on the planet.

For now, it was enough that they were listening.

As recently as three years ago, the state guidelines that govern science education in more than a third of American public schools gave short shrift to evolution, education experts said. Some still do. In Louisiana, religious advocates lobbied successfully this summer for a law that protects the right of local schools to teach alternative theories for the origin of species, even though there are none that scientists recognize as valid. The Florida Legislature is expected to reopen debate on a similar bill this fall.

Even states that require teachers to cover the basics of evolution, like natural selection, rarely ask them to explain in any detail how humans, in particular, evolved from earlier life forms. That subject can be especially fraught for young people taught to believe that the basis for moral conduct lies in God's having created man uniquely in his own image.

When Florida's last set of science standards came out in 1996, soon after Campbell took the teaching job at Ridgeview, he studied them in disbelief. Though they included the concept that biological “changes over time” occur, the word evolution was not mentioned.

Campbell taught evolution anyway. But like nearly a third of biology teachers across the country, he regularly heard complaints from parents.

With no school policy to back him up, he spent less time on the subject than he would have liked.

But at the inaugural meeting of the Florida Citizens for Science, which he co-founded in 2005, he vented his frustration. “The kids are getting hurt,” Campbell told teachers and parents. “We need to do something.”

The Dover decision dealt a blow to “intelligent design,” which posits that life is too complex to be explained by evolution alone and has been widely promoted by religious advocates since the Supreme Court banned creationism from public schools in 1987. The federal judge in the case called the doctrine “creationism re-labeled,” and found the Dover school board had violated the constitutional separation of church and state by requiring teachers to mention it. The school district paid $1 million in legal costs.

Inspired, the Florida citizens group soon contacted similar groups in other states advocating better teaching of evolution. And in June 2007, when his supervisor invited Campbell to help draft Florida's new standards, he quickly accepted.

During the next six months, he made the drive to three-day meetings in Orlando and Tallahassee six times. By January 2008 the Board of Education budget had run out. But the 30 teachers on the standards committee paid for their own gasoline to attend their last meeting.

Campbell quietly rejoiced in their final draft. Under the proposed new standards, high school students could be tested on how fossils and DNA provide evidence for evolution. Florida students would even be expected to learn how their own species fits into the tree of life.

Whether the state's board of education would adopt them, however, was unclear. There were heated objections from some religious organizations and local school boards. In a stormy public comment session, Campbell defended his fellow writers against complaints that they had not included alternative explanations for life's diversity, like intelligent design.

His attempt at humor came with an edge: “We also failed to include astrology, alchemy and the concept of the moon being made of green cheese,” he said. “Because those aren't science, either.”

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