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High school science education slow to evolve

by Sophie Kerszberg

 Penn State researchers have found that  the way evolution is taught in high school science classes is more dependent on teachers’ personal beliefs and their college educations than with current scientific consensus.

 While the National Academy of Science calls evolution “the central concept of biology,” teachers only spend between three and 15 hours of a year-long biology course on the subject, according to an article published in the Public Library of Science.   

Political science professor Michael Berkman, graduate student Julianna Pacheco and political science professor and Penn State Survey Research Center Academic Director Eric Plutzer surveyed public high school biology teachers across the United States. They found that the number of hours spent on evolution―particularly human evolution― depends on the decisions of individual teachers.

Biology teachers who agree with creationist principles and teachers who completed less than one full class in evolutionary biology in college devoted far fewer classroom hours to evolution. According to the researchers, neither state standards nor community pressure is the solution to what they see as a troubling separation between contemporary science and high school science education. 

 Local school districts insist  that only Pa. Department of Education guidelines dictate the biology curriculum.

“The science department strictly adheres to the science standards set forth by PDE,” said David Klindienst, science coordinator for the State College Area School District.

 PDE guidelines  do not mention creationism or intelligent design, nor do they specify an amount of time that teachers should dedicate to the subject of evolution.

According to the guidelines, by 10th grade, students should be able to “apply the concept of natural selection to illustrate and account for a species’ survival, extinction or change over time.” Students should be taught to “examine human history by describing the progression from early hominids to modern humans” and “apply the concept of natural selection as a central concept in illustrating evolution theory” by grade 12.
gBut they are guidelines, not laws,” Plutzer said. “This provides individual teachers with considerable autonomy in all subjects.”

 Local teachers were largely mum on the subject, but  Penns Valley Area High School biology teacher Jacqui Wagner said she works “very diligently to make evolution work in a very conservative school system.”

 Bellefonte  Area High School science teacher Andy Caruso said he considers evolution “a central theme of biology.”

“I always begin by telling (the students) that even if they have conflicts with the theory, one should be informed on what they oppose if they are to make a legitimate argument against it,” Caruso said.

“I've never experienced any negative feedback from parents, although I had a couple of students about four years ago sit out the unit and do other assignments because they claimed it conflicted with their religious beliefs,” Caruso said. “I've also had a few students get pretty heated during class discussions on the topic.”

State College Area High School alumnus Will Thomas said his teacher spent little time on evolution in order to avoid any trouble with students, parents or the school.

“We barely scratched the surface,”  Thomas said. “Students were just left with the idea to keep believing what they believe.”




When science doesn't douse faith

Readers interested in better understanding the origin of the controversy about the evolution - creationism issue in education may find this recent article in USA Today helpful. The article purports neither position, is not religious dogma, but it is thought provoking and may be helpful to teachers wishing to respect both points of view.


High School science education


I know that as a teacher of anthropology at the college level I invariably have quite a few, if not a majority, of students who both/either don't grasp the basics of natural selection and/or know what "hominid" means, let alone think that humans "evolved" from anything. Many of these students are freshmen entering the state college system from smaller, more rural high schools. School districts and teachers around here (Cambria Co., Blair Co., Huntingdon Co, etc., including Centre Co.), must be interpretting the PDE guidelines very loosely!

Where is the mystery?

I kind of understand why someone would avoid the subject.  There are people on both sides who are silly in their rigid beliefs about things they cannot possibly know for sure.

Religious or not, we have to all admit that basically, we have no real idea how we got here or why.  Evolution is interesting and has obvious evidence to support it; but, we are so small in the grand scale of things and our view is quite limited.  Let's just admit that there are things we really never may fully understand and allow a little mystery in our lives.  I think that is more fun and frees us up to solve real problems today - like how to get humans to stop knowingly destroying their own habitat.....

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