The battle over teaching evolution is raging in communities across the country, but the headlines rarely focus on the “quiet” impact of this controversy.
Science is becoming a political “hot potato” for some students — transforming what should be a dynamic, fascinating topic into a total turn-off. And some students are choosing silence over losing a prom date.
“Children are very much worried about their place in the world. Some students only ask me about evolution privately, after class,” said Wes McCoy, PhD, who teaches Genetics, Biology and Astronomy at North Cobb High School in Kennessaw, Ga.
McCoy, who has won the Georgia “Outstanding Biology Teacher” award, is active in his Presbyterian church and also serves on the National Executive Board of the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian faith, is saddened by what he has seen in his classroom.
“Students face consequences if they choose to accept evolution in a family or a church or a community that patently rejects evolution ... It might affect whether you get a date to the prom, or whether you get that summer job or not,” McCoy said. “You may even anger close family members. Conversations about evolution can make family reunions very tense.”
And at a time when the National Science Foundation projects that the number of scientists and engineers reaching retirement age is expected to triple in the next 10 years, McCoy and others argue that the “evolution wars” are taking time away from their life’s work — making these children excited and prepared — to become the next Jonas Salk or Bill Gates.
The town of Kennessaw, where McCoy teaches, is part of Cobb County, Ga. It was in Cobb County that a U.S. district judge recently ruled against the “evolution is just a theory” disclaimer sticker, which had been placed on science textbooks by the local school board.
So is this a “victory” for the educators, who argued against the stickers in federal court?
“The decision to place stickers on the books already reflects an unfortunate politicization of science,” said Brown University professor Kenneth Miller, the co-author of"Biology," the textbook that had the stickers removed.
“Clearly the right thing to do was to remove those stickers and treat evolution as any other subject. But in a sense it has already done damage to science teaching by implying that evolution is especially weak and especially shaky, when it reality it is neither,” Miller said.
Clare McKinney teaches biology and zoology at Jefferson High School in Lafayette, Indiana. She is also a Christian who has been on national news defending the teaching of evolution in the classroom.
McKinney explained why the debate over evolution versus creationism is appealing — and important — to children in her classes.
“For kids this age, fairness is a real issue. Many children, who are not even familiar with the sound evidence surrounding evolution, signed petitions to 'include' intelligent design because it seemed 'fair,'” said McKinney. That said, she also understands the pressure these children feel to “reconcile” their beliefs with science — she went through it herself.
According to McKinney, interested students have waited until they are outside the classroom to discuss what they perceive as “conflicting” views. “I have flat out told students that the more I know about science, the more glorious God seems,” said McKinney.
She stresses in her classroom that “science is not out to prove the presence or absence of God - whatever you believe, it’s OK," adding, “You can almost see the anxiety level diminish when I say that.”
A unified theory
But what concerns educators like Miller is whether this politicization of basic science dissuades children from going into the field.
Miller, an enthusiastic Catholic who wrote the book "Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution,” finds this troubling.
“Science is the one thing that is universal across cultures…and yet [after the evolution debates] some children in this country are seeing science as a potential minefield,” explained Miller.
“We are at a disadvantage if we don’t teach kids evolution, because it’s the one unified theory that can explain everything from antibiotic resistance to pesticide resistance over time,” Miller said. “If a child becomes a pharmacist and someone develops a resistance to a drug, that is evolution. We have to be able to teach it well.”
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