Archive for science education

Dr. Barbara Forrest in Dallas

Posted in Education, Evolution with tags , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2008 by airtightnoodle

Dr. Barbara Forrest (author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design) is coming to Dallas.  Yes, this is the same woman mentioned in the email that got Chris Comer in trouble. 

On Tuesday, November 11, Forrest will be speaking at SMU (Southern Methodist University).  The event starts at 6 and admission is free.  However, you do need to RSVP.  Her presentation will focus on the following:

“Why Texans Shouldn’t Let Creationists Mess with Science Education.”

To RSVP, click here.

Texas scientists want religion, politics out of science curriculum

Posted in Education, Texas with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2008 by airtightnoodle

Thanks to Jimpithecus at Science and Religion, I found the following article from the Houston Chronicle regarding the science TEKS. 

A group of Texas scientists are worried that the state board of education will insist on keeping the “strengths and weaknesses” clause in the Texas standards for biology education.  Currently this phrase is not found in the proposal for the new TEKS. 

David Hillis from the University of Texas summed up the feelings of scientists and science educators across the state well by saying:

“We are here to support and promote strong, clear, modern science education in Texas schools,” said David Hillis, professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin. “Texas public schools should be preparing our kids to succeed in the 21st century, not promoting political and ideological agendas that are hostile to a sound science education.”

However, the article also states that:

A panel of experts recently recommended the “strengths and weaknesses” provision remain in astronomy and chemistry but be removed from the updated science curriculum.

Who is this “panel of experts”, and why did they recommend for the provision to remain in certain areas? 

As mentioned previously on this blog, the TEKS will not be voted on until next spring.

More on the proposed TEKS revisions

Posted in Education, Evolution, Texas with tags , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2008 by airtightnoodle

Being that I am short on time and my blog focuses mainly on evolution, I am only going to comment on the TEKS I feel are related to this topic. 

For those unaware, TEKS are the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills.  These are the objectives all teachers must cover in class.  You may view the current Biology TEKS here.  The proposed revisions are found here.

The first two parts of the introduction remain largely the same.  When speaking of systems, a minor revision is found at the end of the paragraph:

These patterns help to make inferences about past events, predict what will happen next and can change over time.

The current statement is:

These patterns help to predict what will happen next and can change over time.

Not a big change, in my opinion.

However, in the proposed revisions, the next paragraph is entirely new:

Science uses observational evidence to make predictions of natural phenomena and to construct testable explanations. If ideas are based upon purported forces outside of nature, they cannot be tested using scientific methods. Scientific explanations are open to testing under different conditions, over time, and by independent scientific researchers. Many theories in science are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially; however, they are subject to continuing refinement as new areas of science emerge or as new technologies enable observations and experiments that were not possible previously (National Academy of Sciences, 2008, pp. 10-11).

Wow, what a bold statement!  And an entirely necessary statement, in my opinion.  Science has nothing to say about forces outside of nature because science examines the NATURAL world.  Science cannot say anything about the existence or nonexistence of God or any intelligent designer, for example.  I really like this addition because it clearly demonstrates that ideas related to the above are not scientific and do not belong in science curriculum.

The current TEKS related specifically to evolution state the following:

(7)  Science concepts. The student knows the theory of biological evolution. The student is expected to:

(A)  identify evidence of change in species using fossils, DNA sequences, anatomical similarities, physiological similarities, and embryology; and

(B)  illustrate the results of natural selection in speciation, diversity, phylogeny, adaptation, behavior, and extinction.

These have been expanded to give a much more detailed explanation of evolution:

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is an explanation for the diversity of life. The student is expected to:
(A) identify how evidence of common ancestry among groups is provided by the fossil record, biogeography, and homologies including anatomical, molecular, physiological, behavioral and developmental;
(B) recognize that natural selection produces change in populations, not individuals; 

(C) describe the elements of natural selection including inherited variation, the potential of a population to produce more offspring than can survive, and a finite supply of environmental resources resulting in differential reproductive success;
(D) recognize the significance of natural selection to adaptation, and to the diversity of species; and
(E) analyze the results of other evolutionary mechanisms including genetic drift, gene flow, mutation, and recombination.

I approve of the expansion, personally.  There is much about evolution that is not currently covered in the TEKS.  This will hold teachers accountable to teach the theory more fully.  Students deserve a good education in the theory, whether they wind up personally believing in it or not.

Keep in mind these are the PROPOSED revisions.  These will not be voted on for several months.  Stay tuned.

Take down that evolution poster!

Posted in Education, Evolution with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2008 by airtightnoodle

I have an evolution poster in my classroom.  I teach both biology and AP Environmental Science, and it is part of the curriculum for both classes.  Recently on a science teacher message board, I inquired about activities for teaching evolution, after noticing a few students in class commenting on the poster. 

To my surprise and dismay, I had one teacher reply along the lines of the following:

I do not teach evolution in class as there are too many pit-falls.  I talk about DNA/RNA/proteins and mutations, and that’s where we stop.  The students are sometimes disappointed because they wanted to discuss or even argue about evolution.  If I were you, I’d take that poster down.

There are so many things I believe are wrong with this.  Where to begin…

First of all, I don’t know where this person teaches, or exactly which courses this person teaches, but teaching evolution is indeed a standard that must be taught in many classes, and as far as I know, in every state.  Chances are good that this person is completely ignoring something they are required to teach.

Secondly, I find it sad that science teachers are scared to deal with the issue.  Whether one is scared of the students, the parents, other teachers, or whatever, evolution is a huge part of biology and science in general, and should be taught.  We’re doing a disservice in preparing our students for the future by skipping such a central, unifying concept in science. 

Third, even if this teacher happens to be one that does not agree with evolutionary theory, I still contend what I stated in point 2 above–by not teaching the theory, you’re doing an educational disservice to your students.  After I teach evolutionary theory, if a student still disagrees with it, then at least I’ve taught them what the theory REALLY teaches, and perhaps they’ll be better equipped to argue with it, if they so choose.

Arg.  I’ll end this post feeling frustrated, but at least a little less so now that I’ve vented about it.

*Update: AAAAAANNNNDDDD the frustration comes roaring back.  I actually just got a message from another member explaining to me the nature of the controversy.  All I can do is stare with my jaw open at the screen.  Seriously, are there so many people out there that do not understand why some students don’t “believe” in evolution that this person feels the need to explain the issue???  Well, at least they followed it up with some actual suggestions, rather than just saying, “Don’t teach it”.

What to do when students bring up ID/creationism in class

Posted in Education, Evolution with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2008 by airtightnoodle

Most science teachers have been here before.  Some students are more aggressive than others.  Most, fortunately, will let the conversation drop (though moodily) once they are told that we cannot have those sorts of conversations in class.

But sometimes it’s tempting to get involved in such conversations.

What exactly SHOULD you do when students bring up creationism or intelligent design in science class?

Greg Laden gives us some very good common sense and guidelines to follow when confronting such situations in class.  This is a very good read, especially this time of the year when we teachers are all returning to work.

How to “teach the controversy”

Posted in Education, Evolution with tags , , , , , , , on August 31, 2008 by airtightnoodle

So, exactly what does “teaching the controversy” look like?

Look no further.  The Skeptic Dad shows us how to do it properly!

It’s a really humorous post until you realize there are really teachers that basically say just what was posted.  Then it’s just depressing.

Science standards revision time! Get ready, Texans!

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2008 by airtightnoodle

The Texas State Board of Education is getting ready to revise the science TEKS (for those out of state: Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills; basically, the science education standards for the state).  The following comes from the TABT (Texas Association of Biology Teachers).  A similar statement has been released by STAT (Science Teachers Association of Texas).

In an unprecedented move in the last round of English Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) updates, the State Board of Education (SBOE) rejected three years of revision work completed by highly competent Texas English teachers. At the last minute, the SBOE substituted and approved a substitute document submitted by a few members of the SBOE. Please let your SBOE member and state legislature know that you are concerned with any efforts to ignore the revision work of the Texas science teachers.

TABT members are urged to contact their SBOE member and ask for support for quality science education before the July 17 SBOE meeting. At this meeting, the timeline for the revision of the Science TEKS will be established.  For information on how to contact your SBOE member for your district, go directly to TEA at http://www.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/members.html.

Does accepting evolution require faith?

Posted in Evolution with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2008 by airtightnoodle
Science and Religion

Science and Religion

One argument made by creationists or proponents of intelligent design is that accepting (they typically say “believing”) evolution requires just as much faith as believing in the Genesis creation account.  These people say that evolution (sometimes called “Darwinism”) is as dogmatic as any religious belief out there.

It is hard to see how evolution, or science in general, can be called religious, when it does not have any of the characteristics of a religion.  Most religions include a belief in supernatural beings.  Evolution certainly does not require anyone to believe, or not believe, in supernatural beings.  There are also no sacred times, places, or objects; no ritual acts one must perform; and so on. 

To blur the distinction between evolution and religion, creationists argue that evolution cannot be proved.  Since it cannot be proved, one therefore must have faith to believe in it.  However, nothing in science can be proved with absolute certainty.  Yet most people would not classify jumping and knowing you will land on the ground as a “leap of faith”.  That is due to gravity.  Most people know this and accept it without a second thought.  Though nothing can be ultimately proved in science, high degrees of certainty can most assuredly be reached.

The theory of evolution is based on evidence that has been observed.  The amount of this evidence is not scant, in the least, as some creationists would have the world believe.  The amount of evidence supporting evolution is vast and well-documented, and it also comes from many diverse fields. 

Consider the following, which constitutes just a few pieces of evidence of evolutionary theory:

  • All organisms share the same basic mechanisms of replication, heritability, and metabolism.
  • Fossils appear in an order in the strata consistent with common descent.
  • The distribution of species across the globe is consistent with their evolutionary history.
  • Evolution predicts that new structures are adapted from other structures that already exist; similarity in structures should be based on evolutionary history rather than function, according to the theory.  For example, human hands, whale flippers, and bat wings all have similar structures even though their functions differ.
  • Speciation has been observed.
  • Other fields of science confirm that the earth, and the universe, have been around for billions of years–a long period of time, which evolution would require.

Creationists object that since evolution takes long periods of time, and since no one can go back in time to witness these changes, that evolutionary theory is therefore not scientific.  Again, if it is not scientific, one must simply have faith to believe in it, according to the creationists.  This begs the question to creationists: what do you think science is, and how does it operate? 

The Last Battle

The Last Battle

No one can directly see the earth moving around the sun.  No one can see atoms with their own eyes.  No one can see gravity.  Any possible theory of how a star forms must not be scientific, either.  We cannot create a star, the process is not repeatable, and the process takes a very long period of time.  Therefore, these theories must not be scientific either.  We may as well believe the depiction of stars as people from C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.  In fact, large parts of the science world, including much of astrophysics, astronomy, geology, seismology, plate tectonics, and more, should simply be thrown out of the world of “science”, according to this line of thinking.

What creationists do not realize, or simply refuse to realize, is that it is not necessary for all parts of evolutionary theory (or any theory) to be directly observed.  What is necessary is that evolution makes falsifiable predictions that can be tested, and it does exactly that.

Evolution predicts that fossils will be found in chronological order–fossils further down the tree of life are older than fossils that are higher up.  This is certainly falsifiable.  Haldane suggested that anyone wishing to disprove evolutionary theory only needs to discover a rabbit fossil from Precambrian rock.  (Ironically, most creationists say fossils do not prove evolution, yet most creationists readily accept that dinosaurs existed, even though no one was there to see them.  All we have left of them are their fossils.)

Evolution also predicts that we will not observe organisms being spontaneously created, or spontaneously changing into a completely different creature.  Evolution requires that mutations must occur and be allowed to accumulate over time.  Evolution also says that true chimeras cannot exist (as in, a mermaid or centaur).  All of these predictions certainly allow evolution to be falsified.  If the fossil record was found to be static, if chimeras were found, if a mechanism could be found that prevents mutations from accumulating, if organisms could be observed being created, if it could be clearly demonstrated that the earth has not been around for billions of years, then evolutionary theory would certainly need some major adjustments to it, or it would possibly need to be dismantled altogether. 

Instead, the predictions that evolutionary theory makes seem to be verified time and time again.  If memory serves correctly, when Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species no one knew of any hominid fossils.  If none had ever been found, that would have falsified evolution as well.  If no transitional fossils were ever found, that would falsify evolution, too.  Yet when we dig up fossils, we see many examples of change over time.  Evolution predicts that speciation will happen; creationists argue emphatically that speciation has never happened and/or never been observed, but again, it clearly has.

Ironically, many creationists have no problem with the concept of “microevolution” (small changes within a species).  It is macroevolution, speciation, and common descent that they find dangerous.  These people fail to recognize that the same processes involved in microevolution are involved in macroevolution. 

Just as evolution is not a religious belief and does not require faith, creationism and intelligent design are also not scientific.  Both creationism and intelligent design rely at least partially on a supernatural being to explain origins and the diversity of life; this is not testable.  Neither creationism nor ID provides a model for making predictions, they provide no further problems for scientists to work on, and do not provide a way to solve other problems.  Evolution does all of this, and is arguably the best supported scientific theory currently in existence.  It does not require faith, belief that is not based on proof or material evidence, to accept it.

Why do creationists argue that evolution is a religion, or that it requires faith?  This argument deliberately blurs the line between religion and science.  Many religious people feel threatened by evolution and science in general.  Of course, science has turned a lot of the opinions and beliefs of the religious upside down over the years.  By challenging science, creationists are undermining the willingness of others to rely on science.  If evolution can be portrayed as a religion, a false religion more specifically, then perhaps Christians will be as unwilling to accept evolution as they are unwilling to adopt the Islamic or Buddhist religious systems.  One might even classify this as a defense mechanism.

It is my opinion that feeling threatened by evolution or science in general is simply unnecessary.  Having true faith means that one accepts and trusts that whatever God has done is okay.  What is troubling is that this type of faith does not seem to be compatible with most creationists.  Many creationists insist the Genesis creation account be read literally, even though there is nothing in the text that demands it be read in such a way.   Many creationists insist that any other interpretation is simply wrong, or even satanic.  Many of these people cannot accept that whatever God has done is okay, even if what God did was use evolution.  This fervent allegiance to something that so obviously contradicts the observations of the natural world around us does not serve as a good example of faith, and it certainly is not good “PR”, so to speak, for Christians, who unfortunately already have a lot of poor publicity to counteract.

As I have written before:

If God is the author of both the Word and nature, then we should expect there to be no conflict between the two when properly interpreted.

Like this post? Email it to a friend.