Groups Fight New Science Standards in Kansas

Kansas is set to adopt science standards that encourage the exploration of alternatives to the theory of evolution. Science groups are mobilizing to oppose the changes. The groups have said they will not allow Kansas to use their copyrighted material in the new teaching standards.

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The Kansas Board of Education is set to vote this week on science standards that would encourage teachers and students to question evolution and to explore other ideas about how life developed on Earth. Late last month, two national science organizations threw up a last-minute roadblock, refusing permission to use their copyrighted material in Kansas state guidelines, but as NPR's Greg Allen reports, that won't stop Kansas from adopting science standards that critics say constitute an attack on evolution.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

The proposed science standards in Kansas won't require teachers to talk about creationism or intelligent design. What they do is raise questions about the scientific theory of evolution. In dozens of places, in 107 pages, proposed standards suggest areas in which critics believe evolutionary theory falls short; unexplained gaps in the fossil record, for example. Because of those changes, the groups that wrote the national science standards on which Kansas had based its version now says the state can't use its copyrighted material. Jay Labov of the National Academy of Sciences says his group is unhappy that the Kansas standards redefine the nature of science, allowing teachers and students to consider supernatural explanations of the universe. The other problem, Labov says, is how the standards treat evolution.

Mr. JAY LABOV (National Academy of Sciences): Why they try to do is to insert language that makes it seem as if there's some controversy within the scientific community as to whether evolution has occurred, and the vast, vast majority of scientists accept the evidence for evolution that has accumulated over the last 150 years.

ALLEN: Kansas Department of Education staffers are now rewriting sections of the standards that come from the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS move wasn't unexpected. Six years ago, the group took similar action when the Kansas Board of Education last took on evolution. It's a political and cultural battle that Steve Abrams has been fighting for a decade. Abrams chairs the state's school board and is an evolution skeptic. He's also a veterinarian who spoke from his office in southeast Kansas. Abrams says enough other language will be changed in the Kansas standards so that the NAS copyright is no longer an issue.

Mr. STEVE ABRAMS (Chairman, Kansas School Board): Obviously, they can copyright words but they can't copyright ideas. And so the idea that we can still talk about all of the things in sciences, of course, is what we're going to continue to do. We just can't copyright phrases of how they explain those things.

ALLEN: This week, the state school board is expected to approve the new guidelines with the proviso that they will be vetted and changed as necessary to comply with the copyright concerns. Science groups in Kansas are already looking past the vote to the next battle. Lawsuits are being discussed. Even more immediately, political campaigns are being launched. Next year, four conservative board members who support the changes are up for re-election and stiff challenges are expected. After boycotting a series of hearings in Topeka last May, in which supporters of intelligent design criticized evolution, science groups are now mobilizing to defend what biologists say is a bedrock scientific theory.

The Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas, for example, is one of six university museums throughout the Midwest now mounting a new exhibit: Explore Evolution. At the museum, Director Leonard Krishtalka says the exhibit, funded by nearly $3 million National Science Foundation grant, helps to answer some of the questions about evolution raised by creationists and supporters of intelligent design. The exhibit displays the work of scientists like paleontologist Philip Gingerich, whose excavations in Pakistan are beginning to fill in some of the many gaps in the fossil record.

Mr. LEONARD KRISHTALKA (Museum Director): For example, here is a discovery by Gingerich of an ancient whale, its hind leg, and here is the hind leg of the hippopotamus and the structures are very, very similar.

ALLEN: Krishtalka's planning for the Explore Evolution exhibit began more than four years ago and it's coincidental that it opened to the public just a week before the state Board of Education votes on how evolution should be taught. He said the exhibit has more to do with opinions reflected in a recent poll by The Kansas City Star, which showed that just over a quarter of Kansans believe in evolution while more than half support either creationism or intelligent design.

Mr. KRISHTALKA: We have to do a much, much better job especially if we hope to be competitive in a global society that is increasingly scientific and increasingly technological.

ALLEN: Educators like Leonard Krishtalka worry about what the battle here over evolution says about Kansas and the Kansas science education. Popular Science magazine in its annual Worst Jobs in Science issue now lists Kansas biology teacher as the third worst job, just above manure inspector.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Kansas City.

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