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Why We Must Teach Evolution in the Science Classroom

August 2, 2008

By Lorentzen, Laura

I don’t remember when I first learned about the theory of evolution, but nowadays I find myself reading of it a great deal in the popular press and hearing it discussed in the media. As my daughter enters elementary school, I find myself anxious to discuss with her teachers what they will cover in science class and where in their curriculum they plan to teach evolution. OUR COUNTRY HAS LAWS THAT SEPARATE church and state. Public institutions like schools must be neutral on the subject of religion, as required by the Constitution’s First Amendment. Our courts have mandated that creationism is not an appropriate addition to the science curriculum in public schools; yet supporters of intelligent design press to have antievolutionary discussions enter the science classroom. Creationists even advocate that, when leaching evolution, educators should add the disclaimer that it is “just a theory.”

Let’s consider why all of us as educated persons, scientists and nonseientists alike, should take note of what science is taught – and not taught – in our public schools. In common language, a theory is a guess of sorts. However, in scientific language, a theory is “a set of universal statements that explain some aspect of the natural world… formulated and tested on the basis of evidence, internal consistency, and their explanatory power.”1 The theory of evolution meets all of these criteria.

On the opposite side of the argument, “intelligent design fails on hold basic tenets of a scientific theory; design cannot be observed, and it cannot be tested,” writes Mary Crowley in the New York Academy of Sciences Update magazine.2

The National Science Teachers Association (NTSA) argues the importance of teaching evolution in one of its own, most fundamental, writings – its position statement: “If evolution is not taught, students will not achieve the level of scientific literacy they need.” The NSTA recognizes that evolution is a major unifying concept across multiple disciplines of science, and the National Science Education Standards, updated in 1996, recommend evolution as a means to “unify science disciplines and provide students with powerful ideas to help them understand the natural world,”1 Indeed, the evolutionary perspective is vitally important in modern molecular and cellular hiology, not to mention biomedicine – for example, the nature of disease and targeted treatments – and other scientific disciplines.

As we discuss fundamentals of science education for students, let’s also discuss how we prepare our teachers for their role in the science classroom and broader educational system. Are we sufficiently preparing them to teach evolution? Are we equipping them with the knowledge and resources to withstand an onslaught of antievolutionary pressure from the public? Some support, such as various published materials available from the National Academy of Sciences, exists. However, much more is needed in terms of information and public education. For example, Nehm and Schonfeld’s 2007 study of more than 40 pre-certified secondary biology teachers in New York City showed that, even after a semester-long graduate evolution course, the majority of science teachers “still preferred that antievolutionary ideas be taught in school.”4 As our “science teachers are an important ‘missing link’ between scientists’ understanding of evolution and the general public’s ignorance of, or resistance to, the idea,”5 we must do more.

The curriculum taught in our science classrooms should be that which is based on measurable, quantifiable fact. Nonscientific content has its place as well, such as philosophy or religion classes. Let’s just be certain that evolutionary theory is a standard feature of our science classroom lesson plans so that we ensure our students’ literacy, competitiveness, and futures in the global world of scientific study.

“The curriculum taught in our science classrooms should be that which is based on measurable, quantifiable fact. Nonscientific content has its place as well, such as philosophy or religion classes.”

1 National Science Teachers Association [NSTA] position statement on the teaching of evolution, http://www.nsta.org/about/positions/ evolution.aspx.

2 “Teaching evolution and the nature of science” Sept/Oct 2006, p.7.

3 National Academies Press, http://www.nap.edu/ openbook.php?record_id=4962&page=104.

4 Journal of Science Teacher Education 18:699.

5 Brooks 2001, Newport 2006, as cited in Nehm and Schonfeld 2007.

LAURA LORENTZEN, PhD, is associate professor & chairperson, New Jersey Center for Science, Technology & Mathematics Education at Kean University, Union, New Jersey. While her doctorate is in the biomedical sciences, her master’s degree research was determining the molecular evolutionary relationship among lower metazoan animals.

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