Teachers Seek New Ways to Champion Evolution

The competition between evolution and intelligent design is not limited to the courtroom. Students who believe that the theory of evolution conflicts with their faith are bringing the battle to the classroom. That's forcing teachers to find new ways to defend their belief in science.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Science teachers are increasingly finding themselves on the frontlines of the latest war involving evolution.

Here in California, at last month's 54th annual Science Teacher's Convention in Anaheim, many of the attendees went to workshops designed to help them deal with students who challenge their teaching.

Gloria Hillard reports.

GLORIA HILLARD reporting:

Amid hundreds of exhibitors at the National Science Teacher's Convention, one of the largest draws was a book signing.

Professor KEN MILLER (biology textbook author): Melissa?

MELISSA: Yes.

Professor MILLER: M-E-L-I-S-S-A, right?

MELISSA: Yeah.

HILLARD: Author and Brown University professor Ken Miller was signing copies of a large book with an iridescent dragonfly on the cover. It's a biology textbook popular with teachers. It's also the book that was at the center of the most recent evolution versus intelligent design skirmish: the Dover trial in Pennsylvania.

Professor MILLER: Our book was the one the Dover teachers chose, and the Board of Education in Dover objected to, because it had too much evolution in it.

HILLARD: In the end, a federal judge ruled that intelligent design, which argues that life is too complex to have evolved randomly, could not be taught in science classes. But for science teachers, that didn't make the subject go away.

Professor MILLER: That's usually one of the number one questions that the students ask, when--What are you going to cover in evolution?

HILLARD: Patrick Grady is a 32-year-old biology teacher in Orange County, California.

Mr. PATRICK GRADY (biology teacher, Orange County, California): The majority of our students come from Christian homes, backgrounds; a lot of them homeschooled; and as soon as you bring up the topic of evolution, they want to put up a barrier, a wall, and they don't want to listen.

HILLARD: Dozens of teachers wanted to listen to Ken Miller. At his workshop, Darwin Denied: Teaching Evolution in a Climate of Controversy, it was standing room only.

Miller started with a brief history lesson and then set the stage for what teachers are up against today. On a large screen, popular anti-evolution websites flashed before them.

Professor MILLER: This is from the Answers in Genesis website. It is probably the best compendium of anti-evolution information and propaganda that you will find.

HILLARD: Miller also explained how to respond to students who challenge the very basics of evolution. That was especially useful for Julie Bookman, a high school biology teacher for 15 years.

Ms. JULIE BOOKMAN (high school biology teacher): We do have students that ask those types of questions. They don't object to being taught natural selection and evolution, but they do ask the tough questions. So any help I can get with that, is good.

HILLARD: For one seventh grade science teacher attending the workshop, it was the simple question, What happened to Adam and Eve? that proved especially problematic.

Ms. BOOKMAN: I lose them if I can't give them an answer about Adam and Eve. And at that age group, I can't start a theological discussion then.

HILLARD: At the end of the day, one of the most important things Miller wanted teachers to take home with them, was to be respectful of students' religious beliefs.

Prof. MILLER: I think religion and science, properly understood, complement each other by giving a complete worldview. By acknowledging that both faith and reason are gifts from God, and if properly understood, they ought not to be in conflict.

HILLARD: The arguments over evolution have morphed and evolved since the Scopes trial of 1925, and Miller anticipates they will be with us a while longer.

Prof. MILLER: Evolution bothers and disturbs and upsets people, because it concerns who we are and where we come from.

HILLARD: And perhaps, where we're going.

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