Is the future of science education in danger?

02/10/12 Liz McKibbon
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An anthropologist warns Florida has laws that are a back-door entrance to teaching creationist theory in schools. At a lecture Thursday night in Tampa as part of USF’s Darwin Day celebration, Eugenie Scott says that’s hurting the quality of science education in the state.

Students, professors and the public filled nearly every seat in USF’s Fine Arts Hall. Jamie Delgato was one student in attendance.

”Well the whole creationism versus evolution thing has been very politicized, and as a political science major, it really interests me how this thing plays out, because it has an effect on the rest of the country.”

Eugenie Scott is the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization leading the movement of science and educators against the teaching of creationism and intelligent design. In her talk she said evolution is the core of physical anthropology, but it has some negative public perception. She shared an anecdote about a colleague teaching a university level class.

”And after a couple of weeks, she noticed that a couple of students were looking kind of curious. And they came up to her after the lecture and said, ‘Well of course living things change through time, of course species change through time! You mean that’s evolution? We thought evolution meant you can’t believe in God.”

Since the 1960s, the US Supreme Court has ruled that teaching creationism in public school science classrooms is unconstitutional and illegal. Scott says opponents to these rulings are trying different strategies to get around the law.

”The Academic Freedom Bills, though, are very clever. This is a sample bill, which you can find on the Internet. The wording that they use if very positive. They’re trying to advance science. They’re promoting academic freedom. Raise your hand if you’re against academic freedom. No, of course not everyone is for academic freedom. Raise your hand if you don’t want--if you are against critical thinking. Of course, everyone wants their kids to be critical thinkers.”

Scott says the legislation is hurting both teachers and students. She says it’s causing teachers to avoid the controversy all together.

”You give an assignment a kid writes a paper back that’s just full of his own personal opinion about why he thinks evolution is dumb, and why he thinks the bible is correct and on and on and on. And you know… didn’t answer the question, but how is the teacher going to grade that? If the teacher grades the paper down, the student’s parent comes in and stands on his desk, maybe threatens to sue. It’s just too much work. So what a lot of teachers will do in a situation like that is just roll their eyes and say, ‘You know, gotta spend an extra week on photosynthesis, we probably aren’t going to get to evolution this semester.’”

There is a gap in public and scientific opinion about evolution. Scott presented a 2009 study from the Pew Research Foundation, which found that 87% of scientists think that humans have evolved due to natural processes, while only 32% of the public shares this opinion. She says science curriculum should be based on science, not politics.

”The United States has to start filling the science research pipeline with students from North America. We won’t be able to depend on foreign students forever. To do that we need first rate science education in our K - 12 schools and in our universities. And we’re not going to be doing that if we continue to politicize instruction by making the content of our curricula captive to elected officials with agendas.”

Scott says the controversy is not because of poor science or lack of support for evolution, but because some see it as being incompatible with certain religious beliefs. She hopes that in the future that these ideas can be reconciled. Scott will also be visiting with Tampa high school science students for hands-on lab-based activities.

Interview with Eugenie Scott, Radioactivity Thursday, Rob Lorei, WMNF

2012 State of State Science Standards, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute study

Evolution: A Timeline, Pew Research Foundation

Other Pew Research Foundation studies regarding evolution and religion

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