November 16, 2010
Efforts to Improve Evolution Teaching Bearing Fruit
By Sarah D. Sparks
When a federal court in 2005 rejected an attempt by the Dover, Pa., school board to introduce intelligent design as an alternative to evolution to explain the development of life on Earth, it sparked a renaissance in involvement among scientists in K-12 science instruction.
Now, some of those teaching programs, studies, and research centers are starting to bear fruit.
The National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, and other groups have increased research investment on identifying essential concepts for teaching evolution, including creating the Evolution Education Research Centre, a partnership of Harvard, McGill, and Chapman universities, and launching the first peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the subject, Journal of Evolution: Education and Outreach.
Though only one of a long series of skirmishes in a conflict that goes back almost as far as public education in America, the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial, which took place five years ago this month, engaged the professional science community because it put on trial for the first time the scientific validity of intelligent design. The concept posits that the development of humans and other living things was designed by an unnamed guiding force, rather than being the result of natural selection based on random variations.
The school board in Dover argued that there were weaknesses in the theory of evolution, and that students should be exposed to the idea of intelligent design. Judge John E. Jones III of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania flatly rejected that argument, noting that evolution is one of the most strongly supported theories in all of science, backed by broad evidence from across the field. By contrast, he concluded that “the overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID [intelligent design] is a religious view, a mere relabeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory,” in his 139-page findingRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader of fact.
From the Archives: View an interactive timeline of historical highlights in the debate over teaching evolution.
The district chose not to appeal the ruling, limiting its legal jurisdiction. But, along with the rejection of efforts in Arkansas and Georgia to undermine evolution’s validity through disclaimer labels on textbooks and fights over state science standards in Kansas around the same time, the ruling ignited an unprecedented push by scientists and education researchers to become more directly involved in integrating evolution concepts in science classes.
“What it has done is made it clearer to the scientific community that they have to come out and make a stand; they can’t wait in the wings and hope it all blows over,” said E. Margaret Evans, an assistant research scientist in education at the Center for Human Growth and Development at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
One of the instructional-improvement projects is Evolution Readiness, a program devised by a team of researchers from the Concord, Mass.-based Concord Consortium and Boston College. It pairs computer modeling of natural selection with classroom activities and readings on evolution concepts. In the process of developing the program, the researchers have crafted the first evolution-content assessment for elementary students, based on 11 standards-based learning goals for Massachusetts, according to Camelia Rosca, a senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Testing Evaluation and Education Policy at Boston College.
At Elizabeth G. Lyons Elementary School in Randolph, Mass., one of a handful of states where the program is being tested, 4th graders have finished a unit on plant adaptation, in which they watched the changes to a water-sensitive-plant population as the amount of water available was altered. The class is now extending the computer model to include rabbits and will soon add hawks to illustrate a basic food chain, said lead researcher Paul Horwitz, a senior scientist at Concord.
“We thought deeply about how to teach concepts to kids this young,” Mr. Horwitz said. “I didn’t want children to ‘believe’ in science; I wanted them to understand it as an explanation for the natural world.”
Brandon Ho, a 4th grader at Elizabeth G. Lyons Elementary School in Randolph, Mass., responds to a computer-based teaching program on evolution that was created by the Concord Consortium. The program is among several projects scientists have launched in recent years that are aimed at improving students' understanding of that topic.
In addition to using the computer program, the children study a 25-foot-long timeline of species development, play games about food webs, and experiment with Fast Plants®, which germinate and flower within a month.
Now in the last year of a three-year study sponsored by the NSF, the project’s initial results with 200 students and 10 teachers in Massachusetts; San Juan, Texas; and North Kansas City, Mo., suggest that students who participate in the program show significantly better understanding than those in a control group of evolution concepts, such as the idea that changes in the environment will prompt changes in a population over time...