Archive for Thursday, May 10, 2001

Board urged to look beyond evolution theory

May 10, 2001

The presentation of a proposed new science curriculum for the De Soto school district led one board member to call for more classroom discussion of the alternatives to evolution.

The board was presented with a draft of the district's proposed new science curriculum Monday. It is to take final action on the proposal at its May 21 meeting.

Tony Collins, De Soto High School science teacher and chairman of the 21-member science curriculum committee, said the proposal was the result of more than a semester's work.

The committee consulted with experts in science education from Kansas University, Kansas State University, the Kansas Department of Education and nearby school districts, Collins said. Its members also visited classrooms and labs in Lawrence and Johnson County schools to see proposed teaching methods in action, he said.

The committee's efforts were also aided by a parent advisory committee that Superintendent Marilyn Layman called "the most qualified in the subject matter" the district has ever assembled.

The new curriculum would allow students, especially those in elementary schools, to study science by more hands-on methods, said Roy Whitley, a fifth-grade teacher at Woodsonia Elementary. Much of the $300,000 expense of adopting the new curriculum is for kits elementary students will use in their classroom activities.

The proposals are in line with new state and federal science standards that call for younger students to learn more about the "process" of science and fewer textbook facts, Whitley said.

"In my classroom we don't study science, we do science," he said.

In the higher grade levels, the emphasis shifts to facts, Collins said. The high school level curriculum will not, however, be heavily dependent on textbooks. While textbooks will be available in classrooms and for checkout, the new curriculum will rely on Web-based material, he said.

That aspect of the proposal raised concern among board members. Committee members assured board member Bill Waye, Shawnee, that teachers will be ready to make the shift in teaching methods next fall.

In response to board member Jim Thomas' question about the academic worthiness of Web-based material, Collins said the textbook publishing company Holt Reinhardt and the National Science Foundation provide a list of suggested sites.

With those questions addressed, Waye said he would bring up the "big question" of evolution.

"I absolutely believe in evolution, but I also believe we teach theories based on the scientific method and observable facts," he said. "I don't believe evolution meets that criteria."

His daughters have been prevented from bringing up the alternative theories of creationism and intelligent design in the classroom, Waye said.

"As a science teacher, I would introduce other theories," he said. "I just challenge you to keep an open forum."

The science teachers present said they did just that.

"We talk about evolution a great deal," said Mill Valley biology teacher Eric Thomas. "Those concepts are always welcome in my class."

Whitley said he went further. He tells students to discuss evolution with their parents to find out what they think.

"In the end, just like in all the discovery sciences, I say, 'I don't know. Let's just talk about it,'" he said.

Board member Jim Thomas said he thought the committee could ease Waye's concerns if the new curriculum better addressed "why one theory passes muster and the other one doesn't."

The key to science education is an understanding of the scientific method, Thomas said. Using this method, scientific investigators develop a hypothesis to explain observable phenomenon and then test predictions based on the hypothesis. Repeated testing of predictions refine the hypothesis until it is reliable enough to become a theory.

"One of the most influential classes I ever had was the philosophy of science," Thomas said. "I should have been exposed to that in the third grade, not graduate school.

"From reading between the (proposal's) lines, I got it. But it's too important to be left to that."

Collins said the curriculum would be revised to include Thomas' suggestion before it was brought back to the board.

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