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Classroom Clashes: Teaching evolution

Editor’s note: In a two-part series, AAAS talks with middle and high school teachers across the country to find out what it’s like to be on the front lines of two often-controversial science topics — evolution and climate change — and how they deal with the push back. Part I features tales about teaching evolution and Part II, stories from climate science teachers.

Before she started the DVD to introduce the sun and stars section to her eighth grade Earth Science class, Janie Miller* gave a brief preamble, explaining that the origin of the universe film titled Space (a.k.a. Final Frontiers a.k.a. Hyperspace), they were about to watch was just a jumpstart for discussion. Halfway through, she noticed a girl crying.

“The girl was so upset — she was sitting in the dark bawling,” says Mickie Pemberton, the assistant principal at McKnight Middle School in Renton, Washington, a diverse suburb 12 miles from downtown Seattle. “She said she couldn’t watch the video anymore — that it went against everything she believed.”

This emotional scene is among those that occur far too often in classrooms across the U.S. Evolution debates have simmered since Darwin’s time, and even now, many states and school districts have varied ideas on how evolution should be presented. In addition, parents or communities with a range of views can make it difficult for science teachers to do their jobs. The controversy has made evolution a hot-button topic that’s either lightly touched on or avoided altogether. Oftentimes, that means students don’t get the scientific education they need to become well-rounded citizens.

“Teaching biology without evolution is like teaching American history without the Civil War,” says Jeremy Mohn of Overland Park, Kansas, who’s taught high school biology for 12 years.

Still, many teachers have found ways to get science through to students without the drama.

Emotion over evolution

It turned out that the trigger that upset the McKnight Middle School student was narrator and actor Sam Neill’s off-hand musings about where Earth’s molecules came from, mentioning the possibility of aliens, according to Pemberton.

“He made a silly comment,” she says, that hit a real nerve. “That one stupid throwaway line was the one thing that [the student] caught onto.”

Miller, who declined to be interviewed or have her real name published, was so flustered that she didn’t show the DVD for the rest of the day because she felt responsible for putting the student in that emotional state, explains Pemberton, who worked to support Miller as an educator and believed that overall the DVD had good science on the theories of the universe.

Pemberton says that Miller prefaced the video well, but doesn’t think the girl listened. When the student’s mother came to the school, they discussed the video and the family’s faith beliefs.

“This is one of the first times that these kids are challenged to hear things differently than what they grew up with,” says Pemberton, who was rattled herself in a similar situation back in Kansas, when she was a classroom teacher. “I remember doubting myself and it really rocked me to my core,” she says, remembering times when she would teach curriculum content and face a 14-year-old saying ‘you can’t teach me that.’

“Kids can be pretty aggressive with how they push back, and that was what was shocking,” Pemberton says. “I didn’t have the confidence of 10 years of teaching — I didn’t want to make people uncomfortable.” Her mentor, Harry McDonald, a biology teacher for 32 years and now president of Kansas Citizens For Science and based in Olathe, Kansas, helped her through it.

“All science wants to know is how the universe works,” McDonald says.

As Pemberton grew in her knowledge of the strength of evolution, she developed confidence to respond to challenges and debates as micro- and macro-evolution came alive to her.

“If a student said ‘I learned the literal translation of Bible,’ I would say ‘that’s okay and you’re okay to believe that, but my job is to teach you the science which is not negotiable and is not opinion,’” says Pemberton, who would talk about the difference between faith and science. “I could speak to them and not diminish what they were bringing to the table.”

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