Evolutionary Genetics at my High School

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My high school, Athens Academy in Athens, GA, is currently offering an Evolutionary Genetics course to 11th graders (16–17 year olds). They are mostly using an curriculum from the University of Georgia funded through a grant for K-12 evolutionary education development.

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Take that creationists.

31 Comments

Reed, it is nice to see the link to the main University of Georgia web page, but a link to a page on the UGA K12 evolutionary education development effort and the curricula it has come up with would be more helpful.

I tried, but couldn’t find the information. Maybe someone can provide it in the comments.

I asked around and I believe that it is relate to some of course development done my Dr. Wessler (retired from UGA, now at UCR) http://dynamicgenome.ucr.edu/

I would have loved to have had the opportunity to take such a course when I was in HS. Good for Athens!

dpr

That’s wonderful, Reed. You made me curious so I checked my own high school’s web site and found that it also offers a course in genetics (not to mention courses in neuroscience, marine science, AP environmental science, etc.) Things sure have changed since I was there, but then again I went to high school with Lucy.

The genetics course description notes that “Students are expected to complete extensive laboratory investigations.” ID it is not!

This is great news.

Indirectly, it does highlight the issue that in the US, elite private schools and public schools located within very affluent areas offer some of the most advanced high school level education in the world (and this is reflected in the international rankings of American students from these schools, by the way).

Unfortunately, we have the situation that less affluent school districts don’t do very well - not as well as should be expected. And I’m not just talking about urban schools in areas of concentrated social pathology, either. Freshwater taught in a school in what is probably a low crime area, but one where incomes are mainly modest. Far from having an evolutionary genetics class, they had a creationist distorting basic biology. (In general, the specific problem of efforts to teach sectarian creationism as science, and many more may be coming given the legislative efforts of 2011, has tended to plague relatively rural areas.)

One irony is that many of the parents of the students at Athens Academy are likely to be directly supporting science-denying politicians, even while making an enriched curriculum available to their own children.

Another irony is that both political parties take the view that the way to improve public school education is to pay teachers less, reduce the job security of teaching positions, create an atmosphere in which teachers will be perversely motivated to undermine rather than mentor and assist one another, and insert non-contributory profit-taking middle men into the public school system (“charter” schools). As I said, both parties take this stance to some degree http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arne_Duncan. (Another part of this ideology is that things like music, art, and other enriching activities that have been shown to correlate with academic achievement in other areas should be stripped away.)

I’m fairly sure that these bipartisan obsessions are wrong. They grossly oversimplify by ignoring issues like curriculum, security, student family problems, and education research, and instead seem to assume that individual teacher identity explains all inter- and intra-school performance variation. They don’t seem to address the possibility that helping teachers improve might make more economic sense, versus firing them and replacing them (if at all) with inexperienced teachers. They also offer changes to teaching conditions that make it less likely that highly qualified individuals will want the job.

The reasons these bad ideas are popular is obvious. One is the impact of the obsessive ideological belief that maximizing selfishness and negative interpersonal interactions will create a utopia, but far more importantly is the simple impact of denial of economic reality, which stands side by side with denial of scientific reality, as a major characteristic of early twenty-first century US society.

As a general rule, schools in the US get better performance when they spend more money. There are two exceptions. Where social pathology is extremely severe and concentrated, it may be surprisingly expensive to run even a bad school, if high level security measures and frequent attention to student social problems are required (however, more money on educational resources would probably improve performance of these schools). Likewise, private school so luxurious that they spend on things like equestrian activities undoubtedly see a decline in spending-to-academic impact ratio. However, overall, strong public education is like everything else. There is a tendency to get what you pay for.

We’d have never learned anything like this in my school, it was a private high school and while it wasn’t a Christian school, there are monetary issue that poison science education in that situation. First, they have to hire cheap teachers to get their profits. Many of my teachers were incompetent. Others had ideological issues, like our biology teacher who was a creationist. She simply skipped evolution in general biology.

Even if the Principal had the guts to push her to teach evolution as part of HS biology, or a class like this, it still wouldn’t have happened because nobody on the board would be willing to risk losing fees of the conservative christian parents of many of my HS classmates.

Great post Harold. I agree with everything you wrote.

Harold highlights some very important issues that can have significant effects on the curriculum in even the supposedly top tier high schools.

Even highly competitive math/science centers – such as the one I taught in for ten years after I retired from research – have to deal with political meddling by ultra right wing parents and politically motivated budget squeezing, the purpose of which is to elicit conformity to some ideological agenda.

Even though such schools – most of which belong to national consortiums that reinforce high academic standards – offer courses in biology that have evolution as a central unifying theme, the biology teachers still have to deal with aggressive pressure from sectarian parents harassing teachers and administrators to eliminate the teaching of evolution.

In the case of the math/science center in which I taught, I have noticed that the course descriptions of such biology courses are carefully worded so as not to trigger organized political activity against the biology program. There is a hotbed of politically active fundamentalist churches in this area that draw heavily on the materials from AiG (Ken Ham shows up here occasionally), the ICR, and the DI. And occasionally the center gets students whose parents attend these churches.

The teachers at the math/science centers in the South that also belong to this consortium report occasional parental pressure to strip evolution (and now climate change) from the curriculum.

So, even though these centers teach evolution, it is often difficult to see that fact in the course descriptions.

I think we would all like to see the day where schools can teach evolution openly without having to be cowed into walking on eggshells when writing the course descriptions. Sectarian bullying has had decades of lingering effects in communities where fundamentalists have enjoyed a history of socio/political power. I hope those days are coming to an end, but the fight continues.

The teachers at the math/science centers in the South that also belong to this consortium report occasional parental pressure to strip evolution (and now climate change) from the curriculum.

Speaking of climate change, I noticed that the National Center for Science Education has launched a campaign to defend the teaching of climate change in addition to evolution.

There the course is described in these terms:

he students started with basic flow of genetic information. They then did the mPing excision experiment. The last half of the semester will be spent on annotating TEs in the introns of maize. The semester will conclude with a short module on Alus.

The spring semester involved more human DNA analysis and concluded with an exercise called “Who stole our Amorphophallus?” A forensics style lab, but a lot more involved than just swabbing cheeks!

This seems to be some interesting exercises in molecular evolution. One hopes that somewhere, in the “basic flow of genetic information” they mention genetic processes at the population level. Obviously a comprehensive coverage of evolutionary mechanisms is too much to expect, but at least some attempt would help.

Still, this is much better than what happens in a lot of the nation’s high schools.

While “lab intensive” sounds great, the bottom line is understanding. Salman Khan’s “Academy” is working wonders for many High School students (see: http://www.khanacademy.org/). For further background in everyday language, using the Khan approach, try: http://post.queensu.ca/~forsdyke/vi[…]lectures.htm

As a chemist who took high school biology over 40 years ago, my first reaction was to be green with envy. But that was quickly replaced by an optimistic “there’s hope yet!”

I concur, this is great news. You may find of interest these course offerings in biology: at my high school alma mater, which is an elite New York City public high school devoted to the sciences, mathematics and engineering:

http://www.stuy.edu/apps/pages/inde[…]EC_ID=254844

http://www.stuy.edu/apps/pages/inde[…]EC_ID=254844

I can assure you that courses such as these did not exist when I attended it years ago.

https://me.yahoo.com/a/57vt.Vh1yeas[…]AbTpY-#b1375 said:

I concur, this is great news. You may find of interest these course offerings in biology: at my high school alma mater, which is an elite New York City public high school devoted to the sciences, mathematics and engineering:

I can assure you that courses such as these did not exist when I attended it years ago.

Are these Advanced Placement courses? They did not exist when I was in high school either a million years ago.

You got us, Reed. This is devastating news for creationists!

Now, what is it they are going to teach exactly?

1) What a gene is. 2) What a genotype is. 3) What a mutation is. 4) What a allele frequency is. 5) DNA extraction and sequencing.

Somehow, I suspect I can learn about all this on Creation Wiki.

I would also teach kids that natural selection is essentially a negative filter of genetic variation. I would explain that evolution only happens when particular alleles reach fixation.

Joe wrote:

“I would explain that evolution only happens when particular alleles reach fixation.”

Then once again, you would be incredibly, spectacularly, undeniably, wrong.

DS said:

Joe wrote:

“I would explain that evolution only happens when particular alleles reach fixation.”

Then once again, you would be incredibly, spectacularly, undeniably, wrong.

As usual.

I would also teach kids that natural selection is essentially a negative filter of genetic variation.

Yep. But so what? Of course it filters out the less effective variations; that’s what the term “selection” means in this context.

I would explain that evolution only happens when particular alleles reach fixation.

Nope. Changes in frequency of variations is still evolution, even if perhaps less permanent than when a variation becomes fixed in the species.

Henry J said:

I would explain that evolution only happens when particular alleles reach fixation.

Nope. Changes in frequency of variations is still evolution, even if perhaps less permanent than when a variation becomes fixed in the species.

Like how the average beak size of some Galapagos finch species change size depending on the abundance or scarcity of seed-size due to drought or abundant moisture?

Henry J said:

I would explain that evolution only happens when particular alleles reach fixation.

Nope. Changes in frequency of variations is still evolution, even if perhaps less permanent than when a variation becomes fixed in the species.

Sheesh, you don’t seem to get it. Evolution only occurs when the population isn’t changing, that’s why it can’t produce any change. Seems perfectly clear to me …

apokryltaros said: Like how the average beak size of some Galapagos finch species change size depending on the abundance or scarcity of seed-size due to drought or abundant moisture?

I suppose so.

SWT said: Sheesh, you don’t seem to get it. Evolution only occurs when the population isn’t changing, that’s why it can’t produce any change. Seems perfectly clear to me …

Oh well, I’m not a biologist, so that’s probably why.

DS said:

Joe wrote:

“I would explain that evolution only happens when particular alleles reach fixation.”

Then once again, you would be incredibly, spectacularly, undeniably, wrong.

No. I would be right. Fluctuations in allele frequencies is not evidence for evolution. What constitutes “evolution” is when certain variations become fixed within a population by way of selection, drift or migration.

Atheistoclast said:

DS said:

Joe wrote:

“I would explain that evolution only happens when particular alleles reach fixation.”

Then once again, you would be incredibly, spectacularly, undeniably, wrong.

No. I would be right. Fluctuations in allele frequencies is not evidence for evolution. What constitutes “evolution” is when certain variations become fixed within a population by way of selection, drift or migration.

WRONG.

Anyway, who cares, by your own admission, evolution still happens, even if you don;t know the definition.

Reed,

This troll is wildly off topic already. Any further responses by me will be on the bathroom wall. I would suggest that you ban it there permanently and save everyone the torment of another thirty pages of this crap on this thread.

FOr anyone who is actually interested:

“In the broadest sense, evolution is merely change, and so is all-pervasive; galaxies, languages, and political systems all evolve. Biological evolution … is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. The ontogeny of an individual is not considered evolution; individual organisms do not evolve. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are inheritable via the genetic material from one generation to the next. Biological evolution may be slight or substantial; it embraces everything from slight changes in the proportion of different alleles within a population (such as those determining blood types) to the successive alterations that led from the earliest protoorganism to snails, bees, giraffes, and dandelions.”

- Douglas J. Futuyma in Evolutionary Biology, Sinauer Associates 1986

Talk Origins has an entire page devoted to this topic. It describes in great detail all of the misrepresentations that creationists try to pull. I guess if you can’t argue against the real theory, just make up some crap and argue against that. Too bad it only fools the ignorant.

“Biological evolution … is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual.”

Yep. Those changes that have been fixed.

Atheistoclast said:

“Biological evolution … is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual.”

Yep. Those changes that have been fixed.

You have a very strange definition of “fixed”. I think the term would be used here to mean that the mutated gene was (almost) universally carried by all individuals. You seem to be using it to mean “inherited by at least one of the next generation”.

Dave Lovell said:

Atheistoclast said:

“Biological evolution … is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual.”

Yep. Those changes that have been fixed.

You have a very strange definition of “fixed”. I think the term would be used here to mean that the mutated gene was (almost) universally carried by all individuals. You seem to be using it to mean “inherited by at least one of the next generation”.

The only thing that needs to be “fixed” is his understanding of biological evolution.

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This page contains a single entry by Reed A. Cartwright published on January 19, 2012 3:25 PM.

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