Recently in Improving science education Category

I just received an e-mail (along with half a million of my best friends) from Shawn Otto, the founder of, touting his recent article, “A plan to defend against the war on science,” in Scientific American. I thought it was a good article, but a plan it is not; the “plan” shows up in the second-last paragraph and says only,

There are solutions, however. [sic] is certainly a start. Evidence shows the public is hungry for such discussion of science-driven issues–which affect voters at least as much as the economics, foreign policy, and faith and values issues candidates traditionally discuss–that afford an opportunity to hold candidates to account on the evidence. Individuals can join and support organizations like or the Union of Concerned Scientists that fight for scientific integrity. Pastors and preachers can certainly do more by staying informed of cutting-edge science and helping their parishioners parse the complex moral and ethical implications of new knowledge instead of rehashing old political divides. Educators can develop model curricula and provide training for science-civics classes at the secondary and postsecondary level so that nonscience students develop an understanding of how science works in public policy as well as how it relates to their daily lives. There are dozens of others. I discuss many of these solutions in my new book, The War on Science.

I would like to have seen all that fleshed out at the beginning, not the end, of the article. And I keep asking myself, yes, they can, but will they? Still, I thought it was a good article, a good primer on science denial for political reasons from both the left and the right, and even a bit of a primer on postmodernism.

So read the article and support

By Gaythia Weis.

I want to call attention to the newly enacted legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which relinquishes Federal control over many aspects of the education of our nation’s children. In so doing, this law may enable religious activists to exert their influence to a greater extent than previously possible. I need not remind readers of The Panda’s Thumb of the manner in which creationists attempt to subvert the public education system to further their own ideological goals.

ESSA is the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was first enacted in the Lyndon Johnson administration as a means of furthering equality of education in our nation. ESSA is ostensibly directed to address issues, including excessive student testing and ineffective teachers, that many think were problems with the previous No Child Left Behind program. However, the ESSA is the result of bipartisan political compromise and its provisions raise new issues.

Some of these issues ought to be of grave concern to those of us interested in science education. These issues call for our close attention and active monitoring.

Teachers first, scientists second


That is one of the disquieting results of a new survey, Enablers of doubt, by Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer. The two Penn State professors interviewed a total of 35 students on 4 Pennsylvania campuses in 2013. All the students were training to be biology teachers; many were not comfortable with the theory of evolution, and many were “concerned about their ability to navigate controversy initiated by a student, parent, administrator, or other members of the community.” Indeed, instead of relying on their knowledge of biology, they intended to fall back on classroom-management techniques to deal with creationist students. Notably, these were not education students, but rather biology students who “take a set of required courses in educational psychology, classroom management, and methods of instruction.” Their lack of expertise in science seems not to concern them; to the contrary, they thought they would use their skills at avoiding controversy to avoid any controversies.

PT readers may remember Professors Berkman and Plutzer for their book, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, which we reviewed here a few years ago. The disquieting conclusion of that book was that only about 28 % of biology teachers actually teach evolution according to recognized standards. The present study may help explain why.

The students, who attended a large research university, an institution that granted degrees at the master’s level, a Catholic college, or a historically Black university (all unnamed), were interviewed in focus groups. The interviews lasted 50-65 min and were conducted by the authors. The focus groups do not provide a statistical sample, but the authors attempted to include several different kinds of educational institution, and they consider the findings “suggestive.” Below the fold, some representative comments.


Because of the cognitive dissonance required to buy into pseudoscientific beliefs, it’s not surprising when an adherent of one pseudoscience is sucked into believing another one. For example, there is considerable overlap between advocates of 9/11 Truth beliefs and advocates of anti-Semitic causes, or between young-earth creationists and climate change deniers. The Discovery Institute has been engaging in climate-change denial for some time (see here and here, for example), so it’s really not surprising to see today’s banner article on the Heartland Institute’s news page by Discovery’s Casey Luskin. (Last we saw, Luskin was was attacking Neil deGrasse Tyson and COSMOS with straw-man misrepresentations.)

Luskin’s July 10th article in Heartland’s site is titled “Nation’s Schools Targeted with Mythical Alarmist ‘Consensus’ Program.”. The post is

… the first in a two-part column on how the National Center for Science Education is targeting the nation’s schools to enforce a mythical consensus on global warming alarmism.


Things To Do This Weekend


zacknote.jpg As a public service, here are a few suggestions on how to entertain yourself this weekend, and support science education at the same time! If you are in the New Mexico area, come out the the annual meeting of the Coalition for Excellence in Science and Math Education (CESE), which is hosting Louisiana’s spunky young Zack Kopplin (now a student at Rice in Houston). Time: 1:00 PM Saturday, June 29th. Place: Room 122, Northrop Hall, on the UNM campus. There is a map and a flyer. Zack’s topic is “Why we need a Second Giant Leap.”

Secondly, you can act on Genie Scott’s suggestion to support the excellent indie film “The Revisionaries” by voting for it at the PBS website. Genie writes “I know which one I’m voting for: The Revisionaries – the film about Don McLeroy and the Texas Board of Education. I give it 5 stars. It’s so well done and deserves to win.” Vote here.

Finally, here’s a petition at the White House to Ban Creationism and Intelligent Design in the science classroom as federal law. As my cousin wrote me offline, there’s a fat chance such a law will ever pass, but if the petition gets 100,000 signatures, Obama will have to publically address the request.It’s about a third of the way there, but the July 15th deadline looms. If you’re so inclined, add your voice to the petition here

That is the title of a YouTube video by Bill Nye, the Science Guy. The punchline is essentially this,

And I say to the grownups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need people that can–we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.

An appalling fraction of the comments are negative.

See also here for an article to the effect that reports of Mr. Nye’s death are exaggerated.

Acknowledgment. Thanks to Yan Linhart for notifying me about the Slate article.

Gaythia Weis has just sent me the following announcement:

Associated Students of Aims Community College invite the public to a free program to discuss evolution

The public is invited to attend a discussion on the theory of evolution, led by Richard Bond, Ph.D. “Science, Theories, Stories: The Real Issue,” will be presented on Nov. 14 from noon to 1:30 p.m. in Ed Beaty Hall Theater on the Aims Community College Greeley campus. Bond is a former president of Morgan Community College and the University of Northern Colorado, where he holds President Emeritus status as well as Professor Emeritus of Zoology. He has also served three terms in the Colorado Legislature in addition to eight years on the Aims Board of Trustees. He also occasionally teaches adult education at First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Mt. Vernon: An open letter to a school board candidate


Mt. Vernon, Ohio, as most PT readers know, has been the site of three years of legal maneuvering over John Freshwater. As a consequence of that, several creationists are running for school board here. There are three vacancies with six candidates, including two incumbents who voted to terminate Freshwater. One candidate is Steve Kelly, an official with the local Salvation Army.

Kelly is obviously a creationist. In an email response to a questioner, he wrote

I do not believe that the opening chapters of the book of Genesis belong in a science classroom. I do, however, believe that there is considerable scientific evidence that challenges the assumptions of the old-earth/evolutionary model. There is also significant scientific evidence for which the theory of an intelligent designer seems to fit the evidence better than random chance over a lengthy period of time. (I will be happy to cite some examples if you so desire.)

Our students deserve to have all theories of the origin of the world and species presented, along with evidence for and against each theory. (Quotes from religious texts do not constitute “evidence”.) All presentations should be consistent with the Scientific Method. Students can then decide for themselves which evidence seems more convincing. This is teaching our children to be independent thinkers rather than just absorbers of official dogma.

That said, the School Board has no right to abridge or abrogate any curricular requirements set by the State of Ohio. Where requirements exist, I will , if elected, follow the law.

That last sentence is all well and good, but the preceding two paragraphs are real problematic. So another person pressed Kelly about those “examples.” In response Kelly wrote

Here is a link to a page at While I do not necessarily endorse everything on that website, this is a helpful compilation of counterexamples to an old earth. See all of the references at the bottom of the page for source material. > >[…]an_Old_Earth

Gack! So I was forced to respond to Kelly’s claim in an open letter first published on Facebook (Parts 2-4 are in the comments to Part 1: Facebook posting limits and formatting regularly defeats me). I’ll reproduce that open letter below the fold with very light editing to correct a couple of typos and more substantial editing to correct an error.

Bill&Ted2Crop.jpgUPDATE: Links are now changed to take you to the newer BBC site, on which you can listen to the lecture without the hassle of getting RealPlayer. And you can download the lecture as a podcast if you prefer.

The third BILL is a brilliant foray into neuroscience, focused on consciousness and the human brain.

BILL the third is “Synapses and the Self,” by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. Ramachandran is the author of Phantoms in the Brain (1999) and most recently of The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human, published this year.

This lecture is audio only, accompanied by a transcript. It was the second in Ramachandran’s five-lecture series “The Emerging Mind,” which was the 2003 installment in the fantastic Reith Lectures. All five lectures are riveting; this one includes some thoughts on human evolution and might thereby ensnare many Panda’s Thumb regulars. If you can’t get enough of Ramachandran after this introduction, you’ll find videos of other lectures and a NOVA appearance on the ‘tubes. And he blogs a bit; the most recent entries discuss his remembrances of Francis Crick.

I encourage you to listen without referring to the transcript; he’s very clear and fun to listen to.

By Paul S. Braterman
British Centre for Science Education

Michael Gove, UK Education Secretary, has said in as many words that “teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact.” This is progress. The existing curriculum guidelines stated only that creationism and ID should not be taught as science, leaving room for them to be advanced as philosophical or religious doctrines (in the UK, there is no separation of Church and State). In any case, the publicly funded “Free Schools” now being set up are not constrained by the language of the curriculum. Some half-dozen Evangelical church schools with pro-creationism policies have applied for Free School status. We hope, in the light of the Secretary’s words, that these applications will now be rejected.

More below the fold…

A high-school student’s activity spearheading a grass-roots movement to repeal Louisiana’s inaptly named Louisiana Science Education Act is “a profile in (evolutionary) courage,” according to Michael Zimmerman, writing in the Huffington Post.

According to Professor Zimmerman, the student, Zack Kopplin, has already succeeded in influencing the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to adopt a new biology textbook, in the face of opposition from the powerful Louisiana Family Forum. More recently, State Senator Karen Carter Peterson announced her intention to introduce legislation repealing the LSEA, which promotes the use of “supplemental materials” in the classroom. Supplemental materials is a code term for literature that promotes creationism and attacks evolution.

Wesley Elsberry reported briefly on Mr. Kopplin’s campaign here. Please do not rehash that discussion on this thread.

Instead, please help make sure that Professor Zimmerman’s article gets the widest possible readership.

HHMI to produce TV science films


Two weeks ago Sean B. Carroll, evo-devo researcher, author, and new Vice President for Science Education of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, visited Kenyon College where I used to profess. Our dinner conversation touched on the recent Freshwater fiasco in the local public schools, and the Q&A following his talk about Darwin, Wallace, and Bates (based on his book Into The Jungle) turned to the sorry state of general science knowledge in the U.S. I pressed him about it, asking whether in his new role with HHMI he proposed to do anything about it. His answer was “Wait for a press release on February 4.” Well, that press release is out now. It promises that HHMI will commit $60m “… to bring high-quality, compelling science features to television.”

Changes to AP biology test?


An article in last week’s Education Life supplement to the New York Times reports that the College Board is working on a “wholesale revamping of A.P. biology,” a revision which will substantially reduce memorization and will also provide a model curriculum. The new curriculum will rely more on laboratory experiments and hypothesis testing, and less on memorization. The goal, according to the Times, is to allow the students to “focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking.” The changes will take effect beginning with the 2012-13 school year. The Times notes that the changes are important because “critical thinking skills” are necessary for advanced college courses and jobs.

December issue of Evolution: Education and Outreach out


Adrian Thysse flags the December issue of Evolution: Education and Outreach and provides links to individual articles that are easier (for me, at least) to navigate than those on the journal site. Some good stuff there.

Correction: Turns out that Adrian’s post came up in my reader this morning and I blasted right ahead not noticing that for some reason the reader had displayed Adrian’s 2009 post on that issue. Sorry, folks. (There’s still some good stuff there, though.)

Another organization endorses honest science teaching


Voices for Evolution (large pdf) is NCSE’s collection of statements from various bodies–scientific, religious, and educational–that endorse the teaching of honestly presented science in public schools. A new body, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, has just adopted a strong statement on teaching science titled Keep Supernaturalism Out of the Science Curriculum. No wishy-washy euphemisms there! I hope it is soon included in NCSE’s collection.

I was informed by The Skeptical Teacher a couple of weeks ago of the intent to introduce it. He/she posted a draft. I’ve reproduced the final resolution as adopted below the fold, but I’ll put one powerful quotation from it here.

WHEREAS, attempts to subvert the validity or teaching of evolutionary theory are also attacks on all scientific inquiry and, therefore, also attacks on the validity of using reason and experimentation to understand the universe;


Teaching Tree-Thinking to Undergraduate Biology Students


Phylogenetic trees are essential tools for representing evolutionary relationships. Unfortunately, they are also a major conceptual stumbling block for budding biologists. Anyone who has taught basic evolutionary concepts to college undergrads (and probably high school students as well) has most likely dealt with students struggling to properly read and draw phylogenies.

Lucky for us, there is also a growing body of literature on the most effective ways to teach what has been dubbed “tree-thinking”. I have summarized this literature in a review due to be published in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach (doi:10.1007/s12052-010-0254-9). The full text of the article is available at that link, and I have reproduced the abstract below.

Evolution is the unifying principle of all biology, and understanding how evolutionary relationships are represented is critical for a complete understanding of evolution. Phylogenetic trees are the most conventional tool for displaying evolutionary relationships, and “tree-thinking” has been coined as a term to describe the ability to conceptualize evolutionary relationships. Students often lack tree-thinking skills, and developing those skills should be a priority of biology curricula. Many common student misconceptions have been described, and a successful instructor needs a suite of tools for correcting those misconceptions. I review the literature on teaching tree-thinking to undergraduate students and suggest how this material can be presented within an inquiry-based framework.

(earlier draft @ ERV)

Im sure everyone here is well aware of the fact we have ‘science education issues’ here in Oklahoma. Not only do we have a failing grade of 50% on the State Science Standards report card, we have a plethora of politicians and powerful religious leaders declaring scientists and science itself untrustworthy.

How do you get kids excited by science in this kind of landscape?

A childrens musician in Stillwater has a great idea going. Monty Harper pairs up with local scientists to give sweet presentations for kids at the Stillwater Public Library– Monty writes a catchy song about the scientist/their research, and the scientists talk about their research!

Monty has built up enough of a song-base now, he wants to make an album so he can help kids everywhere get excited about science. It will include songs on topics like phototaxic bacteria, stress hormones, wheat genomics, bacterial biofilms, bat taxonomy, x-ray crystallography, and luminescence dating! For real.

The lyrics on his song about how scientists study bat evolution are hysterical and awesome.

Here is where you can help– If you think this is a neato idea and would like to help it become reality, check out Montys page over at kickstarter.

Look at the donation tiers, and see where you want to help– you can donate and free CDs will be sent to a school of your choice, you can get a CD for yourself for your kids (Im giving mine to my nieces), you can get all kinds of insider exclusives, get your name in the CD booklet as an official donor, or at the highest tier– you can get a custom song of your very own, written about YOUR research or your FAVORITE branch of science if you arent a scientist, and be included on the CD!

Im contacting local freethought groups to see if they want to pitch in to get CDs sent to local rural schools– My parents teach at rural schools, and these kids (and their teachers) would appreciate a way to bring professional scientists and researchers into their classroom, even if its only vicariously. A pro-science, pro-family way to do some good.

If Monty doesnt reach his funding goal by August 21 (HIS BIRTHDAY), you wont be charged anything, Monty loses the window his producer has open, and he has to start all over.

Monty may not be a scientist, but he is using his passion and talent to actually DO something to promote science literacy and getting kids excited about science in a pretty harsh environment. I think thats just awesome.

NSF Center for the Study of Evolution in Action Funded

| 33 Comments | 1 TrackBack

William Dembski calls envious attention to the funding (reportedly $25M) by NSF of the BEACON (Bio/computational Evolution in Action CONsortium ) project, a multi-institutional consortium that is intended

…to conduct research on fundamental evolutionary dynamics in both natural and artificial systems, educate a generation of multi-disciplinary scientists in these methods, and improve public understanding of evolution at all levels. The center will unite biologists who study natural evolutionary processes with computer scientists and engineers who are harnessing these processes to solve real-world problems.

Among the researchers associated with the consortium is Joe Felsenstein, who guest posts here on occasion. On a fast run-through of the personnel listing I also see at least four senior people who have been associated with the AVIDA project at Michigan State (Pennock, Lenski, Ofria, and Wilke) and other leaders in both evolutionary biology and computer modeling of evolution. The consortium includes Michigan State University (lead institution), along with the University of Washington, the University of Texas at Austin, North Carolina A&T, and the University of Idaho. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of it, especially given its lofty goals:

BEACON will have a powerful legacy: we will reframe public perceptions of evolution and increase understanding of scientific methods. At the same time, we will produce a conceptual framework to firmly establish evolutionary biology as an experimental science and cement its links to computing in a crossfertilization that enhances both fields.

See also here:

K-12 and general public education.

In this area, BEACON will pursue four main goals:

* Demonstrate the fundamental power and importance of evolution. BEACON will contribute to the pressing national need to bolster U.S. pre-eminence in science and technology by educating people about the importance of understanding, managing and harnessing biological and computational evolutionary processes and deconstructing the false dichotomy of micro- versus macro-evolution.
* Disseminating materials generated by BEACON. Our team includes experts in science education and outreach who will work with all BEACON researchers to adapt BEACON research for use in science classes in schools in ways that address national science standards and goals.
* Increasing participation in science and engineering. We will broaden participation in STEM disciplines by introducing teachers and students from underrepresented groups to the new research opportunities afforded by BEACON’s applied evolutionary tools and research programs.
* Preparing responsible citizens. We will deepen student’s understanding of evolution-related challenges, such as responding to the evolution of infectious diseases and limiting the evolution of antibiotic and pesticide resistance, and have them learn to protect the integrity of the scientific process.

Those are high aspirations.


If you find yourself in the Albuquerque NM area this Sunday, consider heading down to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science to meet Charles Darwin.

Not the real Darwin of course, but entertainer/storyteller Brian “Fox” Ellis.

Here are the details.

Charles Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle with Storyteller Brian “Fox” Ellis Sunday, May 16th 2 p.m. NM Museum of Natural History & Science

After spending five years circumnavigating the globe aboard H.M.S. Beagle, Charles Darwin has spent the past twenty years as a recluse in the study of his home near London, researching and writing his great work, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection. With the recent publication of this controversial book, Charles Darwin is making a rare public appearance to tell his side of the story, share the adventures from his monumental trip and outline the intricacies of his theory of evolution!

Fox Ellis is a storyteller, author, and educator. He has been touring as a performer and educator since 1980. He is a dynamic teller with a warm and entertaining manner. Fox is the author of nine books including, “The WEB at Dragonfly Pond” and nine CDs. He also writes for more than a dozen magazines. Ellis presented “Audubon” last fall at the Museum, and the audience asked for more–so here he is, back by popular demand!

Free, open to the Public! 2 PM at the Museum.

I hope to see you there! Hey, it’s FREE!

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) selected evolutionary biologist Sean Carroll to serve as its vice president for science education. Carroll replaces Peter J. Bruns, who is retiring after serving nine years in that role at HHMI. Carroll is a researcher in evolutionary consequences of developmental processes, or “evo-devo”, and a noted science writer. HHMI is a significant supporter of science education, having invested over $1.6 billion dollars in science education programs over the years.

We congratulate both Carroll and HHMI, and hope this new collaboration does great things.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Improving science education category.

Assault on Education is the previous category.

Kitzmiller Ruling is the next category.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.



Author Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.381

Site Meter