How Should Creationism and Evolution Be Taught in Public Schools?

Joshua Kreisel shares his ethics & society case study, which he completed as part of our Young Scientist Program.

The topics of evolution, creationism, and their place in the public school curriculum have been one of contentious debate for decades. There are many contesting viewpoints on this issue, ranging from teaching both theories on the origins of life, neither of them, or just one. To address all of these arguments would be beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, the case will be made that both ideas should be presented to students in public schools. However, evolution should be taught as part of a science course while creationism should be taught as part of a philosophy or world religions course. Before delving into how the origins of life should be taught in public schools, it is first necessary to define the purpose of public school education. In a broad sense the purpose of public school education can be defined as providing students with the skills and information they need to be productive and successful members of society and to foster lifelong learning.

In a world that is becoming increasingly interconnected, it has never been more important to teach students about the various belief systems and cultures of the word. Upon completion of school, students are thrust into a world where they will not only have to compete with, but work with people from all over the world. As such, they should be informed of any and all religious beliefs and cultural differences they may encounter, so as to be successful in this diverse environment. Knowledge of the myriad of world views they may encounter will aid students in developing not only the intellectual capacity needed to succeed, but the emotional awareness as well. In addition to being emotionally aware and accepting of others, students also need to be informed of the scientific facts and laws that govern our world. As such, they should be taught the theory of evolution. Not teaching either of these viewpoints to students would be dishonest and put them at disadvantage later in life.

Now that it has been established that both theories on the origins of life should be taught the question remains on how to teach them. Before making the case that the theory of evolution should be taught as a science but creationism should not, it is necessary to define what it means for a theory to be scientific. The most commonly used and widely accepted criterion for determining whether or not a theory is scientific in nature is whether or not it is falsifiable, an idea put forth by the philosopher Karl Popper. That is to say, one can conceive of a test or experiment which could prove the idea to be false. By this standard it is clear that the theory of evolution is scientific in nature. It has been put through rigorous tests and the evidence in favor of it is demonstrable. However, the same cannot be said for creation science. The act of creation, as defined in creation science is not falsifiable because no testable bounds or experiments can be imposed on the creator. The creator is defined as limitless, with the power to create infinite universes out of nothing, each with its own unique character. It is thus impossible to disprove a claim, that by its very definition, accounts for every conceivable contingency. In addition, teaching creationism as a science would also open the door to teaching other belief systems that have proven to be unscientific in nature. For example, astrology would be taught alongside astronomy, pyramid power would be given equal time with modern physics, and the flat earth theory would be mentioned alongside the space program. To teach creationism as part of a science curriculum would be a great disservice to America’s youth and would put them at a great disadvantage when competing for jobs, internships, colleges, etc. against more scientifically informed and knowledgeable candidates.

While creationism should not be taught as a science, that does not mean that it should not be taught at all. Philosopher Daniel Dennett proposes requiring all children to take a world religions class at a young age, in which they are taught the facts of all major world religions. He states that they should be taught the facts about their histories, creeds, texts, music, symbolism, prohibitions, requirements, etc. and that they should be taught with no particular spin or attempt at proselytization put on it. And, as long as children are informed of other religions, they can be taught whatever creed their parents and mentors believe they should learn. The basis for this proposed policy is that informed consent is the foundation of our democracy and that a democracy with a misinformed citizenship is not worth it. This idea of informed consent is the basis of our understanding of democracy and how we treat other people as responsible, informed adults. However, children below the age of consent are unable to participate in our democracy. Thus, we have a responsibility to take care of them and ensure they grow up to become informed citizens. This means that we have a responsibility to ensure that they are informed about all the creeds in the world, not just their own or that of their parents. Therefore, in order to ensure the development of an informed citizenship and the endurance of a strong democracy, children should be taught about creationism, just not as part of a science curriculum.

In conclusion, while it is clear that creationism is not science, that does not mean it should not be taught in public schools as well. Evolution should be taught as a science, while creationism should be taught as part of a philosophy or world religions class. Teaching both views to students is essential to ensure their development into well informed adults who can function well in a diverse society.

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Outreach: Life Beyond Earth?

BMSIS Young Scientist led an outreach event at Getulio Vargas School in Florianopolis, Brazil.

Fernando’s engagement was part of his Communications requirements for the BMSIS Young Scientist Program. BMSIS is continuously committed to engaging the public in the wonders of Space Exploration and the Earth System. Our Young Scientist Program continues this tradition by engaging local communities around the world.

Read Fernando’s impressions below:

As part of the requirements for graduating in BMSIS, I took a bit of Astrobiology and extremophiles for students at the Getulio Vargas School, which is a public school in Florianopolis, Brazil, and, in most cases, it has low-income students. This was a great opportunity to present something different to the students of this school. Here at my university, the Biology course has a program called Bio in School. In this program students take their work to schools, in order to show what is done within the university and also to bring some science to the students. This time, Getulio Vargas School was chosen.

On July 1st, 2016, another edition of Bio in School took place and I was there presenting to students the fascinating world of Astrobiology. I asked the following question: “Do you think there might be life beyond Earth?” After hearing their answers, I told them how science tries to find the right answer to this question. I talked about extremophiles and its importance as a study object in Astrobiology and as there are serious studies and research lines addressing this issue.

I had contact with children and adolescents, with school teachers and with other students in my course. Because of this, the approach and scope of the issue were adapted according to the profile and age of the students. Many of the students had contact with the subject Astrobiology for the first time and, of course, they were fascinated, especially when we talked about my work project, the participation in the YSP BMSIS and to have as guiding a biologist who works at NASA. Some students inquired, “but biologist at NASA, how come?”

To facilitate and attract curiosity, many of the students, had the opportunity, for the first time, to view a slide under a microscope with Deinococcus radiodurans, the fascination was great, at times. Even a line was made to see one of the most resistant microorganisms in the world and most studied in Astrobiology. They also had the opportunity to see three bacteria cultures, one with D. radiodurans, one with Methylobacterium longun and another with Methylobacterium sp, the latter was part of my project. For those more interested and for high school students, I made a presentation with images that include Astrobiology to help to give a better explanation and to deepen a little more in Astrobiology.

The interests and curiosities were many, but most proved to be very interested in Astrobiology and also how the extremophiles are important parts to help understand the origin, evolution and the possibility of life beyond Earth and how life adapts and is present in places before said as inhospitable to it.

The result of this exposure was a huge exchange for both school students who experienced a little about Astrobiology, as for me that had the mission to convey some of my knowledge. And this is not an easy task, especially when you are faced with a diverse pubic, children, youth, adults. At times, I was wondering if they had understood what I just explained. But without a doubt, it was an amazing experience and so great that I am already planning to attend the next Bio in School and spread to more people this science area so fascinating called Astrobiology.

 

 

Engaging Private and Public Schools in Brazil

BMSIS Young Scientist Larissa Cavalcanti led outreach events at two schools in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Larissa’s engagement was part of her Communications requirements for the BMSIS Young Scientist Program. BMSIS is continuously committed to engaging the public in the wonders of Space Exploration and the Earth System. Our Young Scientist Program continues this tradition by engaging local communities around the world.

Read Larissa’s impressions below:

During the second semester of 2016, I had the pleasure to have two distinct experiences with high school students from two different schools. The first one took place at a private school and was focused on presenting Astrobiology for interested students (enrolled in regular high school program), while the second one occurred from the beginning of September until the end of November, and my task was to mentor four students from a public Technical School in their completion of course work in Chemistry.

My first experience happened at the beginning of August, when my friend Ricardo and I organized a meeting with two classes of high schoolers from my former secondary school, called Vera Cruz. Those classes occurred during their “Special Studies Week,” for which the teachers proposed different subjects from their regular classes and the students chose between the themes they were most interested in. At first I was a little worried about only a few students singing up for our classes, and how we could organize two two-hour meetings without making them bored. Due to our little time to organize a different activity and our nearly none experience with this kind of scientific divulgation, we decided to work with what we had: two friends interested in helping us.

So, for the first class we had help from a Masters student developing a research in Origins of Life, and the discussion was focused on this matter. During the class, we were able to pass a good idea about how the research in the field works, the interdisciplinarity of the area and how the various fields of research in Astrobiology are related. We were taken by surprise when the students showed a really good knowledge about Astronomy, but fortunately we manage to deepen the topic and the discussion enriched as we moved along our planned presentation. By the end of our two hour class, some students came to talk more about Astronomy in general and Exoplanets. Happily, our next morning class was about Exoplanets, so we knew for sure that we would have some well-informed enthusiasts guaranteed.

For the next morning’s class we were more prepared to answer complex questions that they could come up with and we had time to warn our PhD guest, who would lead the presentation. By the time we arrived for the lesson, some students felt free to come talk to us, what helped us to make ourselves comfortable and, using our previously meeting as a background and taking advantage that we had already introduced a bit of the discussion, the presentation was focused in techniques of identifying exoplanets and some fun-facts about it. Both days went successfully and one of the responsible teachers invited us for future talks with his other students at Astronomy classes, which he gives at another private school.

A few days later, my coordinator invited me to mentor four students from a public Technical School in one of the tests I had to do as part of my research. My task involved introducing them to the basics techniques necessaries to work at the laboratory, explain my project, help to prepare a “work-plan” so they could finish their project in time to write their report, and look after them while they executed the experiments. Apparently, it would be simple to work with them and it truly was. Considering that they came to the laboratory hoping to work with biochemistry, there was no sign of disappointment as they started to work with more emphasis in microbiology. All of them was willing to learn and, unlike the students from my former high school, they didn`t know much about Astronomy and Astrobiology.

It was almost three months of hard work in which I spent most of the time introducing the Astrobiology`s research areas, motivating them to ask my colleagues about their research, stimulating their curiosity and explaining every part of the project and why they had to do it to encourage their independence inside the laboratory. After all, we had a good time together and, among contaminated bacteria growth cultures and working until late hours, we finished successfully all tests.

In both experiences, I learnt that working with high schoolers is not that easy and you never know how well-informed they are. At the same time, it may be fun to talk to them and fell their often-contagious enthusiasm, remembering us how amazing it`s to work with research. However, I felt the need to reach younger students, specially from public schools, since even my four cute students from one of the best public schools of Sao Paulo didn’t know much about this field. The public education in Brazil is a matter of high concern between educators and reaching young students and introducing deeper into science, from my point of view, can considerably change their view for future profession and, maybe more important, in the future transforms how common people faces this area.

High School Outreach

BMSIS Young Scientist Shiyin Jim led an outreach event at Crescenta Valley High School in La Crescenta, California.

Shiyin’s engagement was part of her Communications requirements for the BMSIS Young Scientist Program. BMSIS is continuously committed to engaging the public in the wonders of Space Exploration and the Earth System. Our Young Scientist Program continues this tradition by engaging local communities around the world.

Read Shiyin’s impressions below:

For my community outreach presentation, I presented to students at my local high school, Crescenta Valley High School. When I was at CVHS, I took AP Biology with Ms. Orenda Tuason and it was one of the most challenging classes I took during my four years. Though difficult, Ms. Tuason went above and beyond to expose us to synthetic biology, genetic engineering, and bioengineering. When deciding where to do my community outreach presentation, I chose Ms. Tuason’s AP Bio classes because I knew those students would be interested in the subject matter, and were also at a point in their lives where exposure to different topics would have a real influence in what they decided to do.

In creating the presentation, I faced a few challenges. The biggest challenge I faced was making the presentation engaging. I knew that I would be presenting to students that were unlikely to be enthusiastic about hearing from me.

I approached this problem by thinking back to three years ago, when I was in their position. Back then, a guest speaker meant a break from taking notes and a good 15 minutes where I could zone out and not worry about falling behind. Keeping this in mind, I tried to make my presentation as engaging as possible; I tried to be relatable, and kept checking in to make sure I hadn’t lost all of them. My strategy for the presentation was to tell them about the research, and then tell them why it made a difference in both space exploration and the medical field. I spent the last five minutes of my presentation talking about me; how I got the job, and how hard I worked to put myself in a position to accept it. I maintained that I’m not much different from any of them, and that much of being successful is hard work.

I ended up giving the presentation to three different groups of students; two were AP Bio classes and the third was my high school’s medical academy. Each was a little bit different, but each class had one or two students that asked a lot of questions or appeared to be more interested than the rest. I think my favorite part of the presentation was being able to tell the students that you really never know where STEM can take you. Being able to show them what a difference three years can make was rewarding, because for students, it’s easy to get lost in what you’re doing and not remember why you’re doing it in the first place.

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