Science, Teachers and Clergy Strengthen Bonds at AAAS Evolution Event

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Teachers Bertha Spahr and Robert Eshbach came from Dover, PA for the event.

ST. LOUIS — Leaders from education, religion and science convened with 400 educators and others here Sunday for a frank look at the challenges educators face in teaching evolution and defending the integrity of science in their classrooms.

Many of the teachers came from the St. Louis area for the “Evolution on the Front Line,” event held in conjunction with the 2006 AAAS Annual Meeting and backed by three dozen of the nation’s biggest science and education organizations.

Other teachers came from as far away as Dover, Pa., and Cobb County, Ga., two flashpoints in the effort to keep religion from being imposed on U.S. science classrooms.

Over the course of three-and-a-half hours, they heard both elegant discourse on the origins of life and practical advice on how to respond when students, parents or local school officials pressure them to avoid teaching evolution or to introduce creationism or intelligent design doctrines into classes.

With rising concerns that the United States is losing its innovative edge in the world, several speakers said that the teachers play the key role in training and inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Rep. Russ Carnahan
Rep. Russ Carnahan

“As we consider these critical educational and workforce competitiveness issues, we’re simultaneously stumbling through a debate over the teaching of evolution in our public school systems,” said U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, (D-Mo.). “Unfortunately, this recycled political debate has the ability not only to take us off track and to undermine the stability of science, but to hinder our focus on reaching new heights in science.”

“We are in a very sensitive, precarious situation,” said naturalist Jeff Corwin, the Emmy Award-winning host of “Corwin’s Quest” on the Animal Planet cable television channel. “If you want to believe in intelligent design, you absolutely may. You can aspire to it because this is America, and you can believe whatever you want. But just because you aspire to a particular philosophy does not necessarily give you the right to take that information and integrate it into curriculum.

Jeff Corwin, host of "Corwin's Quest" on the Animal Planet cable television channel
Jeff Corwin, host of “Corwin’s Quest” on the Animal Planet cable television channel

“I look out and I see all these teachers who have come together at this critical time in our lives…. I urge you to stay strong and vigilant. Make no mistake — what you are doing is important.”

Just before the event began, the AAAS Board of Directors issued a new statement on the teaching of sound science in U.S. science classes.

“The AAAS Board of Directors is deeply concerned…about legislation and policies recently introduced in a number of states and localities that would undermine the teaching of evolution and deprive students of the education they need to be informed and productive citizens in an increasingly technological, global community,” the statement says. “Although their language and strategy differ, all of these proposals, if passed, would weaken science education.”
Science and religion “need not be incompatible,” the statement says. “Science and religion ask fundamentally different questions about the world. Many religious leaders have affirmed that they see no conflict between evolution and religion. We and the overwhelming majority of scientists share this view.”

Evolution has become a high-profile and often polarizing issue in the in recent years. Anti-evolution interests in dozens of states and local school districts have introduced measures to directly require the teaching of intelligence design doctrine or to more subtly undermine science by insinuating that there is a scientific controversy about evolution.

The Sunday [19 February] evolution event was a summit of sorts, bringing together representatives of religion, education and science in a way that rarely happens.

Clearly, moderate religious groups have made strong statements that their faith can comfortably embrace the science of evolution. More than 10,000 clergy from a range of religions and denominations have signed a letter backing evolution. And at the AAAS event, the Rev. George Coyne, a Jesuit priest who serves as director of the Vatican Observatory, detailed the Catholic Church’s acceptance of evolution.

The Rev. George Coyne
The Rev. George Coyne

Coyne said the subculture of fundamentalist Christianity that insists on the literal truth of the Bible “is a plague in our midst,” obscuring the deeper marvel of creation.

“The intelligent design movement belittles God,” he told reporters before the event. “It makes God a designer, an engineer. The God of religious faith is a god of love. He did not design me.”

Coyne stressed that on matters of religion and faith, science is “absolutely neutral.” Other speakers echoed that, saying that science and religion operate in separate realms. Where religion is based in faith and concerned with the creation or moral meaning of life, science concerns itself with seeking testable, verifiable explanations for the processes of the natural world.

U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones made that distinction in his December 2005 decision striking down an intelligent design policy in Dover, Pa. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif., said the decision marked a turning point in the national controversy — but not the end of it.

“As a legal strategy, intelligent design is dead,” Scott told reporters before the event. “It will be very difficult for any school district in the future to successfully survive a legal challenge. That doesn’t mean intelligent design is dead as a very popular social movement. This is an idea that has got legs…. It will continue to evolve.”

For example, backers of intelligent design may move toward explanations that seek to undermine evolution without invoking any sort of supernatural creator. One such vehicle could be “sudden emergence,” which cites the abrupt historic appearance of new or markedly different life forms.

In surveys and focus groups before the meeting, teachers made clear that many feel pressured to downplay evolution or to acknowledge intelligent design as an alternative. At the AAAS event, teachers in an informal survey said they need resources for answering such pressures.

They registered three top concerns: They don’t have ready answers for parents, students or others who urge them to “teach the controversy.” They struggle with ways to frame the scientific material in a way that can reach students who have faith-based hostility toward it. And they want more training to bolster their knowledge of evolution and their confidence in teaching it.

Linda Froschauer, a veteran science teacher and president-elect of the National Science Teachers Association, said that teachers who are successful respect and value all of their students no matter their beliefs, and that they strive to “lower the temperature of the conversation.” One challenge is to teach students the nature of science, starting as early as the elementary grades.

“I believe that this is where we have our greatest problem,” Froschauer said. “How did we ever get to the point where many intelligent people have the notion that a scientific theory is just a guess or hunch? How did we ever get to the point where people can be confused between what is anchored in evidence and what is a religious belief? How did we ever get to the point that this wake up call would be at our classroom doorsteps?”

Scott recommended a straightforward and honest approach for teachers: If a parent or student asks for the teaching of faith-based doctrine in science class, she said, the teacher can explain that high schools are required to teach the scientific consensus in any field. Evolution is the overwhelming scientific consensus, and if that shifts among researchers, high school curriculums will shift, too.

Dinosaur scientist Scott Sampson, chief curator and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Utah Museum of Natural History, said teachers have another good option if they feel unsure how to answer a challenge to evolution. After hearing the question, he said, they can ask for a day or two to research the answer.

The panelists suggested a number of helpful websites:

In the end, many of the teachers suggested that they felt energized by the event.

“We’re all dealing with these issues,” said Terry Locke, who teaches introductory biology and advance placement biology at St. Charles West High School in Missouri. “Hearing from scientists, hearing from researchers and other teachers—I think that’s valuable for people who are dealing with these issues….I think it’s been great.

“I think there’s a lot of value in this,” agreed Robert Esbach, one of the teachers at Dover Area High School in Pennsylvania who protested the school board’s effort to impose intelligent design. “It makes science teachers, especially at the high school level, aware that they are not out there alone, and that there are resources out there that we can use.”

Efforts to preserve the integrity of science translate directly into preserving and advancing America’s long-term economic strength, said AAAS President Gilbert S. Omenn.

“It’s time now to move beyond this issue,” Omenn said, “and to recognize that science and religion are not in opposition. But they are different, and therefore should not be presented together in science classrooms.”

Omenn commended “teachers who are working on the front line to convey core evolutionary concepts that will enhance competitiveness and potentially lead to new and life-changing discoveries for future generations.”

Links

Evolution on the Front Line: The Full Program
For comprehensive access to video and PowerPoint presentations from this headline event, click here.