Teaching Evolution: A Case Study of a Courageous Science Teacher

There was an article (Evolution’s Lonely Battle in a Georgia Classroom) in the New York Times online edition on June 29 about a middle school teacher by the name of Pat New. She stood alone in her small north Georgia school district of Lumpkin County, which is located in the mountains, and decided not to give into parental and administrative pressures questioning why she was teaching evolution in her 7th grade life science class. Hopefully, the mountains gave her some peace.

One day a parent would write emails and question why she was wasting time on evolution when more factual stuff could be taught. Her principal on one occassion asked her if she believed every thing in the Bible. She said she felt uncomfortable about him asking that question. Given the fact that she was teaching in a very small North Georgia town, it was not unusual that such a question would be asked. But by her principal?

Even her curriculum director wondered why she was spending so much time on evoloution. Even after explaining that evolution the central concept in modern biology, and was “taught” in each chapter, the administrator sighed, and just didn’t get it.

Even though I’ve questioned Standards-Based Teaching, and the over-emphasis on testing, Ms. New was able to inform her administrators and parents that she was simply “following the state standards. They backed off. Fortunately for Ms. New, Kathy Cox, the Georgia Superintendent of Education didn’t get her way when she wanted to removed evolution from the state curriculum, but was over-ruled by national and state organizations, and even the governor and a former president.

The teaching of evolution in the science curriculum has been a recurring issue in school districts and states across the USA ever since the 1925 trial of John T. Scopes, who was accused of breaking a Tennesee state law against teaching evolution. You might want to refer to Chapter 3 of The Art of Teaching Science, which explores the history of science education.

Teachers such as Pat New are courageous. They respect their students, and feel that they have a responsibility to be truthful about the nature of science, and science teaching, and not be influenced by dogma.

Denial in the U.S. Senate: Head in the Sand Politics

All around Washington, D.C. a deluge of evidence runs through the streets and buildings, and you would think that the U.S. Senate’s Committee Environment and Public Works would stop denying the scientific evidence of global warming. Yes, there is debate within the scientific community regarding global warming. But instead of engaging the scientific evidence, the Senate continues to put down any research that indicates that carbon dioxide emissions by humans might have contributed to global warming.

What triggered the lastest episode of denial was an article by Seth Borenstein, AP Science writer entitled Scientists OK Gore’s Movie for Accuracy. In the article Borenstein reported that he contacted more than 100 scientists, and for the ones that responded, he wrote this summary: “Gore conveyed the science correctly; the world is getting hotter and it is a manmade catastrophe-in-the-making caused by the burning of fossil fuels.”

This upset the Majority wing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. They issued a statement that criticized the artcle by Bornstein. Apparently, the committee wants full disclosure. Give us all the names of those scientists you contacted Bornstein!

I understand the Majority wing of the Committee not being very happy to have Al Gore receive acolades from scientists about his movie and book. But I doubt whether they would have embraced any movie or book about global warming, even it was produced by the U.S. government.

I recommend that the entire committee, majority and minority members, read Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change!

Butterflies and Global Warming

I was struck by the breadth with which Elizabeth Kolbert approached the evidence to evaluate the issue of global warming. In her book, one chapter is entitled The Butterfly and the Toad. What could butterfly’s and toads have to due with global warming. Here the story on butterflies.

People in England, and other parts of the world have been monitoring butterflies for hundreds of years. One particular butterfly of interest here is Polygonia C-Album (known as the Comma butterfly–as seen here).

In the 1970s, according to Elizabeth Kolbert, the British decided to focus its efforts on butterfly monitoring through its Lepidoptera Distribution Map Scheme. Hundreds of amateur butterfly observers were involved, and by the mid-eighties, they had developed an very large atlas that showed the distribution of every butterfly type in England.

The distribution map for Comma’s range up to 1994 is shown below. By the end of that decade the original map was out-of-date, as shown in the second map below.

Comma Distribution up to 1994

Comma Distribution 1995 – 1999

Kolbert reports that the authors of the most recent butterfly atlas call this expansion “remarkable.” They report that species of “general butterflies” all have moved northward since 1982. And other scientists looking at other butterflies, report that nearly 2/3’s of all species have moved northward in recent years.

This story shows how climate change can be seen in the behavior of wild-life. Individual species become indicators of climate change. As Holbert points out, individual changes of specific wildlife could be due to local changes; the only explanation proposed that makes sense of them all, is global warming.

Butterflies as indicators of climate change might be a great project for students. In the U.S., the project Journy North is worth investigating. Journey North engages students in a global study of wildlife migration and seasonal change. K-12 students share their own field observations with classmates across North America. They track the coming of spring through the migration patterns of monarch butterflies, bald eagles, robins, hummingbirds, whooping cranes — and other birds and mammals; the budding of plants; changing sunlight; and other natural events.

Glacial Retreat: Evidence of Global Warming

We just returned from a trip to the Rockies, and spent several days in the Rocky Mountain National Park, hiking, watching wildlife, and simply enjoying the majestic scenery of these western mountains. A million years ago, these mountains were covered with glacial ice, and the erosion caused by the ice created many “glacial-features.” One for example is a large valley that was “carved” out by the action of water and ice, in Moraine Park, as seen below.

Here is another picture that shows some of the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies off in the distance. Most of the snow you see will last through the summer. But much of it melts each year providing the west with much of their water.

The glacial age came to an end in the U.S. about 10,000 years ago when the ice retreated from Ohio, and continued retreating to the distribution of glacial ice as seen on maps in the 20th century.

But there are some places on Earth in which glacial ice is a prominent part of the landscape, and has been for a couple of million years. In her new book, Field Notes from a Catastophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, Elizabeth Kolbert approaches the problem of global warming from many angles–temperature increases, floating houses in Denmark, the “new” ranges of butterflies, the increasing retreat of glaciers.

In Iceland, scientists and citizens through the Icelandic Glaciological Society have been monitoring the many glaciers that have been on Iceland for perhaps the last 2 million years. According to Kolbert, the society was founded in 1930, and made up mostly of farmers who would pace off the distance to the edge of a glacier. They kept up the measurements every year, and it seemed each person involved had his or her own glacier to monitor. Although Iceland’s glaciers were growing in the 1970s and 1980s (in the North America, they were shrinking), they started to contract in the mid-1990s.

For example, the glacier shown in the map below (Myrdalsjokull glacier), receded 10 feet in 1996, 33 feet in 1997, and 98 feet in 1998. In 2003 it shrank by 302 feet, and 2004, 285 feet. As the glacial watchers said, the glacier has retreated more than 1,100 feet in 10 years. And this is happening to all of the glaciers on Iceland.

If you live in Iceland people can tell what the climate is doing by the activity of glaciers. Now, glaciers are getting smaller and smaller, some warn that the only ice that will be left will on the tops of the mountains.

If you live in New England, you know that the climate is changing. For the past two years the greatest floods in New England’s history have occured. In the midwest, there is the fear that over the next several years a severe drought will hit, as it has already affected western areas such as Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. The climate is changing. In Kolberts book, she presents the evidence from many points of view that Earth is warming, and its probably due to the buildup of carbon dioxide. I recommend the book. It would be the basis (content—you’ll need to develop the activities) of a very powerful teaching unit for middle and/or high school students.

Small is Beautiful: A View from the Gates Foundation

In a recent issue of BusinessWeek magazine, an article appeared that is entitled Bill Gates Get Schooled. The article focuses on the struggle that Gates and educators working with funds from Gates Foundation experience as they try and reform high schools. The foundation is trying to find out what makes high schools work so that students from inner-city neighborhoods who traditionally have not done well in school—do well, and can advance into higher education. Have they been successful?

Since 2000 the Gates foundation has funded several hundred high schools, with a very large cluster of them being in New York City. As the article points out, the Foundation has raised the awareness that high schools need to be given the attention they deserve, given the horrendous drop-out problem this country faces.

One of the key approaches to high school reform is making high schools SMALLER (200-600) students. Researchers 30 years ago recommended this, but it was not implemented as high schools instead of getting smaller, increased in size. Anyway, the Gates schools have attempted to manipulate the school culture of high schools by making them smaller, and therefore more intimate. Students won’t fall through the cracks–they’ll be noticed, and involved.

Did the students do well acadmically? Yes and No! They did well in English and reading. Not as well in math. I am not sure whether science was studied. But even when the writers of the article pursued the academic question, the evaluators of the Gates programs were not satisfied in this area. Simply making a school smaller, they say, will not result in increase academic performance. What needs to be done?

In their opinion, greater attention needs to be given the pedagogy implemented in the high schools. Although there was not much discussion of what pedagogies, the fact that this is addressed is important. My suspicion is that an inquiry-oriented, problem-based approach is needed. Students need to be involved with each other, and with the subjects that they are exploring. Didactic, text-book based environments are not the way to go. A constructivist philosophy, with cooperative learning fully implemented and understood by the teachers is essential.

I have first hand knowledge that more than 30 years ago a high school of more than 3800 students was divided into “units” of 300 students. Students had their own physical environment—classrooms, assembly area, lunch area. Teachers were organized by unit, so that within a unit there would be several English, mathematics, and social studies teachers. The science department had it own building, so students left their “unit” to take science, as well as art, music, and physical education. It was an experiment in making a large high school more intimate for students by dividing into several smaller schools. One of the differences in the Gates model is that in one case in NYC, an existing high school was divided into three schools within the building (separated only by a floor or two)—and each was a distinct and separate high school. That was not the case in the experiment I described from 30 years ago.

I recommend you check out the Gates article in BusinessWeek, and also the Gates Foundation.

How do you think high school education should be reformed? Let us hear from you.