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Darwinfest offers Arizona teachers support for science

January 30, 2009

ASU remembers Darwin, the power of risk-taking and how bold ideas can change worlds with Darwinfest, Feb. 4-13.

Bringing in some of the top evolutionary scientists and philosophers, planners from ASU’s School of Life Sciences and their university colleagues have designed a creative scientific enterprise that features acclaimed authors and filmmakers, as well as a Darwin look-alike contest, beagles, and a Darwin birthday party. Amidst the festival-like atmosphere and provocative questions that touch on religion, gender, and race, will be particular attention on teaching about Darwin and his science in the classroom.

Why the focus on Darwin and his theory? Studies have shown that “16 percent of high school biology teachers are essentially young earth creationists who deny human evolution, with only 28 percent accepting unguided naturalistic evolution of humans,” says John Lynch, a lecturer in ASU’s School of Life Sciences and an Honors Faculty Fellow in Barrett, the Honors College.

“While this latter number is higher than the general public’s 13 percent, it is still very low.”

What keeps these numbers so low? Teachers face a unique challenge with Darwin and a theory that’s achieved rock-star notoriety in particular, some ASU educators believe, because of a general lack of background information, effective teaching strategies and techniques.To address teachers’ needs and concerns, ASU’s Darwinfest will include a workshop and panel discussions constructed for educators.

The “Evolution Challenges Workshop,” led by Sarah Brem, an ASU associate professor of psychology in education, is designed to bolster the classroom skills and access to information for Arizona teachers, while  helping them find their way through what can be a personal, as well as an educational, minefield.“Teaching about evolution is stressful,” says Brem, with ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton College of Education. “Teachers experience physiological and psychological stress when just thinking about teaching evolution. They are well aware of polls and can easily envision problems that may arise in their classrooms.”

“This workshop will help teachers address each facet that contributes to the beliefs reported in polls, and in ways that can be addressed in the classroom with respect and integrity,” Brem adds. “It will also help us to learn more about what teachers experience and provide support.”

The Feb. 7 Darwinfest workshop, held on the Tempe campus from 8 a.m.-3 p.m., is part of the Evolution Challenges program, funded by the National Science Foundation. Area high school teachers must apply to attend and can receive college credit, if they are already enrolled in an ASU Master’s program, or a $250 honorarium.

Joining Brem and Lynch is a multidisciplinary team from the ASU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, including researchers from the School of Life Sciences, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, and Institute of Human Origins; and from the School of Educational Innovation and Teacher Preparation on the Polytechnic campus. Applications to attend the workshop can be obtained by contacting Margaret Coulombe, ASU Darwinfest’s coordinator.

Lynch believes that at a time where state and local school boards are being pressured by creationist groups to “teach the controversy” over “Darwinism,” teachers and their students need to be clearly aware of the scientific nature of evolutionary biology and how scientists frame and test claims about the evolution of life's diversity.

“Evolutionary biology is no different than any other scientific field,” Lynch points out. “And modern evolutionary biology – while having its roots in Darwin's ideas formulated over 150 years ago – is not ‘Darwinism,’ but rather a rich field of inquiry that Darwin himself would perhaps not clearly recognize. We at ASU are committed to helping Arizona's high school biology teachers develop lessons that clearly show evolutionary biology for what it is – an exciting, engaging, and fascinating field, one that shares all the characteristics of modern scientific inquiry.”

Brem agrees: “Especially in Arizona, where the shortage of science teachers has led us to really push for innovation in recruitment, training and retention, I think helping teachers deal with this scientifically complex and socially controversial topic is particularly important.”

Brem and Lynch also believe that exposing students to all venues of science allows them to “draw their own conclusions,” an opinion shared by fellow workshop participant Debi Molina-Walters, a science education professor in the School of Educational Innovation and Teacher Preparation.

“If we teach high-quality science, students will be better equipped to make meaningful decisions on how to use that information and apply what they have learned. Darwinfest is an opportunity to celebrate science and the scientist who has had a huge impact on this discipline.”

In addition to the Evolution Challenges Workshop, ASU’s Darwinfest hosts an interactive panel discussion geared toward educators. “Teaching and Learning Evolution in America: Darwin’s Role in the Classroom” will be held on Feb. 13. Several other Darwinfest events for the public will also be held at the Arizona Science Center, including the Feb. 20 Science Café “Evolution and Faith revisited: Can the two be reconciled?” featuring Lynch and Norbert Samuelson, ASU professor of religious studies. Brem believes that Darwinfest offers a rare opportunity to see science in a different way, as a truly human endeavor.

“Darwin wasn't the heroic sort or a child prodigy; he was a methodical, shy man who missed a lot of days of study because of panic attacks and a bad stomach. He's in many ways an ordinary guy who is a central piece of this extraordinary puzzle because he persevered even when he was scared out of his wits and wanted to stay locked in his study working on yet another specimen,” Brem explains. “That's a very different picture of science than we usually get, and I think it's one that might help people to better understand who scientists are, what we do, and why.” 

For a full list of Darwinfest events and more information about the workshop: