On December 16, 1999, the San Bernardino County Sun
carried a front page article entitled "Mythic Science", in which a science teacher at a local high school related details about his personal quest to locate Noah's Ark upon Mount Ararat. A television interview of the teacher was aired on February 7, 2000, on the "Evening Edition" program produced by the local PBS affiliate, KVCR TV 24, San Bernardino. Comments made by the teacher in the interviews indicated that he was incorporating material related to his search for Noah's Ark into his public high school science class. In the interviews, the teacher said that he used the Ark Search as "an example of the scientific method" and that he presented alternative theories of geology to his students, including the notion "that there could have been a global event that formed much of the sedimentary rock layers".
The immediate concern raised by these interviews was that the Genesis narrative of the Noachian Flood and related creationist concepts of flood geology were being presented, as science, in the context of a public high school science class. This is not only bad science; it is bad theology in the view of many religious communities, including the Roman Catholic Church. This also appeared to be a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, since the teacher is employed at a public school, is therefore an agent of the government, and, as such, is prohibited from advocating religious claims to his students.
Having scrutinized these interviews, a number of concerned individuals contacted the NCSE and other organizations, formed a coalition to address the issue, and contacted the appropriate school district administration with our concerns. Our efforts have been successful. After about three months since the issue was first raised, the school district has taken steps to ensure that this teacher will stop using material that could be interpreted as creationist in nature and present only the approved science curriculum to his class.
Dealing with this issue has been a valuable learning experience for my associates and me. I would like to share with you some of the lessons we have learned.
- Do not overreact. Our concern on learning of the teacher's activities was that school authorities might somehow be condoning or turning a blind eye to what the teacher was doing. It soon became apparent that members of the school board and administration were simply not well informed about the issues and that it would take time for them to come up to speed. In hindsight, some portions of our initial letters, though carefully reasoned, were more aggressive in tone than was appropriate. The result was that it probably took more time than was necessary for the school administration to trust us; unfortunately, we were viewed initially as extremists.
- Keep your manner friendly, dignified, and nonconfrontational. Throughout our interactions with school district administrators, we were careful to treat them with respect and as professionals. At one point, maintaining a nonconfrontational demeanor entailed distancing ourselves from potential allies who apparently relished the controversy as much or more than the opportunity to obtain a satisfactory resolution. At another point, we declined the offer of media attention about the issue because we had achieved a cooperative relationship with the school district administration. We decided that sparing the district the publicity would expedite a speedy resolution of the issue. Acting in a nonconfrontational manner enabled our group to communicate effectively with the school district administrators who had the power to resolve the issue.
- Attend school board meetings and introduce yourself to those officials with whom you have corresponded. A friendly handshake helps to establish a personal rapport, and it always helps for names to be connected to faces. When we deliberately passed up the opportunity to comment in the open forum session of a school board meeting, the district administration came to understand that we were not extremists seeking controversy, but concerned, individuals seeking a reasonable solution.
- Do your homework and use available local resources. In our case, local colleges and universities provided our group with two very effective representatives of the scientific and educational communities. Local high schools provided several other concerned science educators. The San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee also provided valuable assistance in locating concerned parents in the community.
- Do not ignore local religious resources. Our group's connections to religious organizations helped us to find articles and spokespersons that supported curriculum standards that insisted that science, not creationism or religion, should be taught in science classes. Many mainstream religious organizations can be quite supportive of science education and of the separation of religion and government.
- Use available internet resources. The internet proved to be an indispensable source of information in support of our research. We had instant access to background material on the creationist movement, California State science curriculum standards, and relevant court decisions upholding the teaching of science. The NCSE web site is an excellent starting point: http://www.natcenscied.org/.
- Use resources available from national organizations. The NCSE, the ACLU, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State provided information, guidance, and moral support. The NCSE, in particular, served as a clearinghouse for information and for concerned individuals. The NCSE initially connected our group members with one another. Special credit is due Molleen Matsumura of the NCSE. The National Science Teachers Association and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences also proved to be valuable sources of information. Through our contacts with these organizations, our group became more effective and appeared stronger than it might have otherwise.
- Find at least one concerned parent in the local community. Your arguments will carry more weight with the school district if they are made by parents who have children attending local schools. When our group initiated our complaint with the district, we did not know any parents of students in the school district. Not having the help of concerned parents in our group hampered our initial efforts to communicate the urgency of our concerns to the school district.
- Once your homework is done, be willing to go public. The local Public Broadcasting System affiliate, KVCR, offered our group an interview to rebut the earlier interview of the high school teacher. Disclosure to the school district of the willingness of our group's PhD geologist to participate in the rebuttal interview coincided with a timely and appropriate decision by the school district to limit science classroom instruction to established scientific theories.
- Use e-mail to keep your group informed and current. In our group, one member acted as the e-mail clearinghouse and made sure that all members had access to needed information. Not every e-mail went to every member of the group, but most did. Information sharing helped to keep our group working as a team. Having a clearinghouse and conducting peer reviews of all correspondence kept members from hitting the "send" button and regretting it in the morning.
- Know the strengths of your group's members and divide tasks accordingly. In our case, we had individuals with expertise in geology, state and national science curriculum standards, science and theology issues, and the creationist movement and related legal issues. In our communication with the district, each member covered a different perspective: science and geology, state curriculum standards, constitutional and legal issues, or theology. One of our members had extensive experience in the education system and in the political processes surrounding state and national science education standards and served as a mediator between our group and the school district.
Through teamwork, effective communication, and perseverance, our group succeeded in encouraging the local school district to ensure that students at the high school receive a sound science education. We are still following the situation to ensure that there is long-term compliance by the teacher with the district's instructions.
As I mentioned before, this has been a valuable learning experience for all of us. The final lesson we have learned is that individuals can, and do, make a difference in the quality of education offered in a community, only if they are willing to stand up, speak out, and be heard. The following quote from Margaret Mead sums it up very well: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."