Advertisement

Archive for Sunday, April 17, 2005

Evolution’s front line: Conflicts play out in classroom

In the battle over science standards in public schools, it’s parents and teachers — not politicians — who are down in the trenches

April 17, 2005

Advertisement

Two years ago, when Adrian Melott, a Kansas University physics and astronomy professor, learned that his son's sixth-grade teacher was skipping over evolution, he set up a meeting.

"She said there's a lot to cover and we can't cover everything in the book," Melott said the teacher told him. "I kind of insisted she cover it, and she did. But I'm sure this happens a lot. The classroom is the front line of the battle."

The skeleton of a mosasaur hangs from the ceiling of the Natural
History Museum at Kansas University. The marble floor inlay in the
museum's entrance depicts the evolutionary process.

The skeleton of a mosasaur hangs from the ceiling of the Natural History Museum at Kansas University. The marble floor inlay in the museum's entrance depicts the evolutionary process.

In the classroom, Brad Williamson, a biology teacher at Olathe East High School, said when his lesson focuses on evolution some students get argumentative.

"It's almost like it's set up for a confrontation," said Williamson, a past president of the National Biology Teachers Assn.

Conservatives on the State Board of Education have thrown the state back into the emotional debate over evolution as they consider science standards for statewide testing.

But while both sides reload with fiery rhetoric and hurl talking points at one other, it is teachers, parents and students who will have to live with their decisions.

For Kansas, it's a replay of the 1999 battle when conservatives de-emphasized evolution and then were punished at the polls, and evolution was reinstated. Now conservatives are back in control of the state education board and advocates of intelligent design -- a theory based on the idea that there is a rational cause to the origins of life -- want students to be exposed to criticism of evolution.

"I'm not sure that parents are particularly well-informed about what is going on," said John Lillard Burch.

Burch, who supports the teaching of evolution, has put together a forum on evolution and bioscience that will be from 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt.

West Junior High ninth-graders Mallory Ray, left, and Stephanie
Mattern work on a science paper last week during biology class. The
debate over how much emphasis should be placed on evolution in
public schools is brewing again at the state education board.
Students, along with educators and parents, will have to grapple
with the consequences of the board's actions.

West Junior High ninth-graders Mallory Ray, left, and Stephanie Mattern work on a science paper last week during biology class. The debate over how much emphasis should be placed on evolution in public schools is brewing again at the state education board. Students, along with educators and parents, will have to grapple with the consequences of the board's actions.

He said he got the idea for the discussion because no one was making sense when he went as a concerned citizen to state education board meetings in Topeka.

"I just saw people talking past each other, taking political positions to get it on the record," he said. "There are well-funded institutes that exist to try to politicize this issue, and they are doing it for their own interests and not the students'."

Conflicting views

For Williamson, the Olathe biology teacher, evolution is at the basis of everything he teaches, and some students react angrily to that.

Last week, he told a student to cool off in the hallway after the student kept saying that a video the class watched said man descended from a monkey. Williamson said the video didn't say that.

He said the confrontations were ridiculous. Fundamentalist Christian beliefs and evolution are not exclusionary, he said.

"Science doesn't have anything to do with the purpose of life. There is plenty of room for science and religious views," Williamson said. But, he added, the two subjects should be taught in separate places: science in the classroom, religion in the church or home.








But James Calvert, of Lake Quivira, a national proponent of intelligent design, says it is the pro-evolution forces that are intolerant.

He said students sometimes were made to feel uncomfortable or ignorant if they challenged their teachers on evolution. And, he said, teachers who challenge evolution are ostracized by their peers and sometimes punished professionally.

"Teachers are caught between a rock and a hard place," Calvert said. "A teacher who believes thoroughly in evolution, they're teaching kids with access to the Internet and who are going to churches where they are being given a different view."

David Doll, whose children attend Veritas Christian School in Lawrence, said evolution was taught "as an alternative view in the upper grades.




Evolution is the change in life over time through adaptation. Most biologists agree it is the process by which the earliest organisms have developed into the plants and animals of today.Intelligent design is the assertion that life and the natural world show signs of having been designed by an unnamed intelligent being and that life is too complex to have happened randomly.Scientific method is the tool that scientists use to test scientific laws and modify or reject those found inadequate. It generally involves the observation of phenomena, the formation of a hypothesis, and experimentation to test the hypothesis.

"We believe in full intellectual rigor. The Scripture is valid, but we don't believe children should be ignorant of other viewpoints," he said.

Fundamentalist Christians Alex Politnikov and his wife, Tatiana, have five children in the Lawrence public schools, from first grade to high school.

Alex said his children learned evolution and often discussed how science and the Bible seemed to disagree.

"Evolution should be taught as a theory and not as a fact," he said. "God created the universe." But, he said, he wants his children exposed to evolution.

Sandy Collins, a biology teacher at West Junior High, said evolution couldn't and shouldn't be avoided in the classroom.

"It is the underlying piece of biology," she said.

A teacher since 1987, she said she has had parents approach her because they were concerned about the subject matter.

"Their main concern is are you going to make their child uncomfortable," she said. "I reassure them that is not the case."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.