UC Berkeley News


New tools to teach evolution proactively
Website is designed to help teachers feel comfortable with the subject … and to put out creationist ‘flare-ups’ when necessary

| 04 March 2004


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The home page of the “Understanding Evolution” website co-created by Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology presents a rich array of resources designed to aid K-12 science teachers.

The debut of a new website devoted to evolution provides a much-needed resource for teachers as schools across the nation are being challenged to kick evolution out of the classroom or pair it with instruction in non-scientific alternatives, such as “intelligent design.” The “Understanding Evolution” website (evolution.berkeley.edu), funded by the National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and created jointly by Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology and the National Center for Science Education, went online early last month. It debuted just as Georgia’s superintendent of education advocated eliminating the evolution “buzzword” from the state science curriculum and the Ohio state board of education voted to include some aspects of intelligent design in lesson plans about evolution.

For teachers caught up in the imbroglio, or those who just want to brush up on their understanding of the theory or find an engaging lesson plan for their students, this website is the place to go.

“Many K-12 teachers don’t have a strong science background, so there is some discomfort in teaching evolution, which is perceived by some as controversial,” says Judy Scotchmoor, director of education and public programs at the Museum of Paleontology and a 25-year veteran of seventh- and eighth-grade science classrooms. “We provide a comfort zone. Teachers can use this site to increase their confidence level so they can teach evolution enthusiastically in the classroom.”

One Tennessee science teacher who stumbled on the new site e-mailed the museum with his praise. “Your gorgeous site absolutely knocked my socks off! Don’t know who the genius was who knew exactly what middle-schoolers would be interested in while learning real science, but I am totally impressed! The content is superb and the graphics beyond belief.”

Scotchmoor and Berkeley integrative biology professors David Lindberg and Roy Caldwell worked closely with six teachers and numerous graduate students to assemble a site that would be “a one-stop shop” for teachers, and eventually students and the general public, on the theory of evolution.

“We’re dealing with evolution as a science and how it fits into today’s society,” says Lindberg, who also is chair of the Department of Integrative Biology. “We see and read about evolution in action all the time, but we don’t often think about it.”

The site is replete with practical examples of how evolution impacts our daily lives, including lesson plans about bunny breeding, the problem of antibiotic resistance in disease organisms, and the conservation and breeding of endangered species.

“To understand why we have to get a yearly flu shot, or why we need to manage rainbow trout and steelhead populations together, you have to understand evolution,” Lindberg says.

One of those who worked on the project, Al Janulaw, an elementary- and middle-school science teacher for 32 years, thinks that many teachers are reluctant to teach evolution, and so present it as just one explanation among many for change over time.

“When I look out at my middle-school students, I tell them that this is the history of life on Earth, but I think it’s common for other teachers to be more wishy-washy about it,” says Janulaw, past-president of California Science Teachers Association and co-director of the North Bay Science Project, at Sonoma State University. “The intent of this website is to give teachers a background understanding of evolution, opening the door by giving them strategies for teaching and responding to misconceptions and roadblocks.”

Lindberg notes that the site avoids a defensive or confrontational attitude toward those who do not accept evolution. Suggestions on dealing with religious or other objections are offered in a respectful way in a section called “Overcoming Roadblocks.” Nevertheless, the site makes clear that “there are no alternative scientific theories to account for the observations explained by evolutionary theory.”

The heart of the site is “Evolution 101,” which can serve as a primer on evolutionary theory or an intensive course in the nitty gritty details of speciation, micro- and macroevolution, and ongoing research into how evolution happens.

“This is what every science teacher should know about evolution,” Scotchmoor says. “There are textbooks that cover the process, but we put it all in there, including discussions about the nature of science and the history of evolutionary thought, which has built on itself from the 1700s to today.”

Adds Lindberg: “Textbook publishers must market to many states, so you’re going to get common-denominator coverage of evolution. We deal with evolution as a science.”

Anna Thanukos, who recently received her Ph.D. in science and math education from Berkeley, and who drafted most of “Evolution 101” over the past two years, says that the new website “provides context for teachers. Even if teachers plan to discuss only the tip of the iceberg of evolution, to teach effectively they need to understand all parts of the iceberg.”

Reaching a definition
One of the knottiest issues the site’s creators dealt with was how to define evolution. Even Lindberg and Caldwell, the scientists on the development team, initially couldn’t agree on a definition. After many brainstorming sessions, they finally agreed on a concise and compact definition: descent with modification, both in the short run, as gene frequency changes from generation to generation (microevolution), and over many generations, leading to new species (macroevolution).

This definition, says Scotchmoor, distinguishes evolution from mere “changes with time” — a phrase Georgia wanted to substitute for “evolution” — and emphasizes a central theme of the theory of evolution: that we all share common ancestors.

One of the “coolest” parts of the site, according to Thanukos, is the ability it offers the user to search for lessons aimed at various grades. A second-grade teacher, for example, can find 18 lessons that teach some aspect of evolution, from simple exercises that get kids to use their senses to explore the natural world to elementary displays of the concept of geologic time and extinction.

More than 900 teachers across the country are now part of the evaluation process as the development team continues to improve the website. Funding is being used to build on the teacher site in developing companion sites for kids and for the public. In doing so, the team is experimenting with evolution comic books (one is titled “Survival of the Sneakiest”), the first of perhaps hundreds of personal stories about ongoing research on evolution, more online lesson modules for teachers, and video and Flash graphics to enhance the photos and cartoons now illustrating the site.

Says Lindberg: “We believe firmly that the way to ensure that evolution is taught in schools is to give teachers the resources, information, and activities they need to do a good job teaching evolution. This is a pro-active stance, not reactive.”

Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), praises the efforts of Scotchmoor and her collaborators. For Scott, the evolution website offers an alternative to fighting the constant anti-evolution flare-ups around the country — in seven states, at last count.

“What we do at NCSE is hand out fire extinguishers to help people address anti-evolution issues,” Scott says. “But what we’d really like to do is cut the brush. If people just understand what evolution is, and that nothing bad happens when their children learn evolution, then hopefully we won’t have so much controversy.”