Teachers Helping Teachers with Evolution
By Robert Bernstein
Teaching evolution was the latest hot topic at the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara.
Nikki Chambers took the train up to Santa Barbara from Torrance to tell us about the challenges and joys of teaching evolution in the schools. She wears many hats.
She teaches high school honors biology. She helps other teachers teach. She is a woman of science. Evolution is her passion, but not just biological evolution. She also studies astrobiology. Here are my photos from her talk: http://swt.org/hssb/2019-0921-chambers-evolution/
Evolution is the greatest story there is in her view. She asks for a show of hands and finds that at least half in the audience have been teachers at some time. Some in the audience have had science careers and there is some overlap.
Her daughter is an author and her husband is a mechanical engineer. Her daughter majored in theater and immediately got a paying job with a view of San Francisco Bay! Her son studied science and is still living at home.
How does it feel to be a teacher? She loves it. She is in a community without gangs or metal detectors. The students are enthusiastic. The families are intact and advocate for education. She delights in unlocking the wonders of the universe for her students.
Some come to her class thinking they hated science. They realize they just hated how it had been taught. She is not just teaching a body of knowledge. She is teaching a way of thinking. With evolution, she is teaching about CHANGE.
The day before her talk was a big day regarding change. Climate change. The climate strike had begun around the world. She slipped out to be a part of it, though she did arrange for a substitute for her class.
Instead of going downtown she wanted to take the kids outside. She does not see herself as a social activist.
There were unexpected roadblocks. Her school community resists conflict. They resist thinking outside the box. They see themselves as a good school that does not need innovation or social agitation. She got pushback.
One administrator who has not had enough science told her of the climate crisis, "Teach the controversy." Those who know the history of corporate lobbying know that this is was the basis of the tobacco industry strategy and was then used by the fossil fuel industry.
Fortunately, teaching about the climate crisis is part of the official teaching standards. "We are going to do this."
There are 2300 students in the school. 1800 were outside for the occasion. Some neighbors called the police claiming it was too loud. Really? Louder than Friday night football? Obviously there was another motive.
Chambers is on the textbook committee for the school. She said that the current biology textbook is 17 years old and is missing much of modern biology science and technology. She has not used that textbook for ten years because she said it misrepresents current understanding of life.
Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Earth Science are taught in high school. Some of this is quite static. Newtonian mechanics and the periodic table haven't changed much.
It is a challenge to pick textbooks because there is always a contingent that wants to omit certain subjects. For example, gender fluidity or vaccines. Change makes people uncomfortable.
At the climate rally someone drove by with thumbs down. She would like to talk to that guy and find out what bothers him about this. Another guy made a worse gesture. She encouraged the students to wave back with all five fingers.
The science of climate change is pretty easy to understand. It is not partisan. CO2 is not Democratic or Republican.
Students are often confused about what they are "supposed" to believe. They hear different things at home, school and church. And this is not just in the Bible Belt. Some students are defiant about learning evolution.
A top student in her class explained evolution perfectly. Then added that "This is empty knowledge and I don't believe a word of it."
One challenge is the colloquial meaning of "theory" undermines the solid basis of the "theory of evolution". "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" was an essay by evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky.
We actually understand evolution better than we understand the mechanism underlying gravity.
Chambers cited these Court precedents on teaching evolution:
- 1968 Epperson v Arkansas
- 1975 Daniel v Waters
- 1987 Edwards v Agullard
- 2005 Kitzmiller v Dover
Science is silent on a range of issues: What is beauty? What is our purpose? These are important issues, but not part of science. Evolution is part of science.
Where are we today? She presented a cartoon mocking the idea of "Teach both theories… let the kids decide".
Astrology claims that the position of the stars at the time of your birth affects you for the rest of your life. She had her students calculate the force of any of the stars and compare that with the gravitational force of the obstetrician who delivered you. The latter is bigger.
Chambers cited a poll that 61.7% of Americans think creationism should be taught in the schools. This is very different than in other industrialized countries.
This is very exhausting for teachers. 31% felt pressured to teach creationism. And 13-16% of high school teachers believe that God created all life 6,000 years ago.
One Alabama educator said that some students were told that they would go to hell just for listening to ideas of evolution.
A "cautious middle" simply avoided teaching the subject. In California they have 24 teaching goals to achieve in eight months. It is impossible to do all of them. It is easy to leave out evolution.
Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are an attempt to fix the problem of the US falling behind the rest of the world on science education. A diverse committee is working on this. Chambers thinks this is the best thing ever for science teaching. It may take 30 years and it may not succeed.
In her day you picked a major based on your intended career. That makes no sense now as many careers don't yet exist. Is there a solution? Start with better education for the teachers!
She believes evolution education is essential to understand biology.
Richard Dawkins launched Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES) which aims to help. Start by requiring all teachers to complete a course in evolution.
She once had to teach a course in meteorology and geology with no prior background. She was able to stay just a few days ahead of the students because she had the resources to do so. TIES provides those resources for evolution.
Chambers showed us one set of science teaching requirements. There are 1100 pages of requirements. Students used to just have to memorize things. Now they have to understand them. She likes the standards, but they can be overwhelming.
TIES starts with explaining the meaning of "theory" in "theory of evolution". They apply the theory to practical issues such as antibiotic resistance.
Religion should make no difference. Antibiotic resistance affects everyone regardless of religion. And religion deals with other issues outside of science.
The National Science Teachers Association says that evolution should be taught all the way from K-12 to have well-informed citizens. The world is being run by people who have not had enough science education.
TIES has been well received by teachers. They appreciate the online resources. Chambers teaches three hour teacher workshops to use these resources. The only criticism? They need to be longer!
Chambers closed by saying, "It is all about the kids." And then took questions.
She expressed concern about "siloed learning". Critical thinking is key. Students ask why they have to write complete English sentences in science classes.
A person with a degree in math or physics can earn more in industry than in teaching. That is an ongoing challenge.
Judy Fontana asked about Europe vs US science teaching. Chambers explained that Europe is more secular which eliminates conflict over evolution. The US expects recent education graduates to intern for free. They tend not to stay on where they are needed most.
But Turkey is actually going backwards, so things could be worse.
A German woman asked about respect for teachers in the US. Chambers noted that her school is 40% Asian. Their emails to her begin with "Dear and Respected Ms Chambers." Their families moved here so the kids could get a good American education. They have respect for education as a concept.
Meredith asked about the integration of science with arts and popular culture. Chambers gave an example of project learning: Learn the name of one bird that is in your backyard. Figure out what kind of birdhouse it would use. Sketch it. Build it. Paint it. Imagine how many skills this would use?
She would love to see such project learning all the way through school. The challenge is a range of logistical issues. Including how to grade students.
We are fortunate to have educators like Ms Chambers who are creatively finding new ways to educate students as well as teachers.