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Evolution in Nebraska

"Darwin's theory of evolution would continue as a cornerstone of science classes in Nebraska's public schools if proposed new state science standards are adopted this summer by the Nebraska Board of Education," according to a story in the Omaha World-Herald (June 13, 2010). Moreover, there are apparently no efforts underway to lobby for the inclusion of creationism: "Three members of the Nebraska Board of Education say they're not aware of any effort by board members or the public to include intelligent design in Nebraska's new science standards."

The World-Herald editorially expressed its relief at the lack of any fuss over evolution, writing (June 15, 2010): "The board has included evolution in the curriculum as part of a commendably calm and responsible approach to modern science education. Indications are that the Nebraska standards, which are underpinned by the theory of evolution, will pass muster without the firestorm the same issue has raised in other states. That says a lot about the sound judgment of the elected board members and the common sense of Nebraskans in general."

The editorial added, "Evolution is the bedrock on which much of modern science is built. Everything from government policy to agricultural biotechnology, medical advances to ethics issues can require an understanding of evolutionary principles and findings. Children who lack a solid background in the fundamentals of modern science can be at a considerable disadvantage. In a hyper-competitive world economy, our country depends on a continuing supply of well-educated, knowledgeable and science-literate young people."

Nebraska's previous state science standards, from 1998, received a grade of C for their treatment of evolution from both Lawrence S. Lerner in his 2000 study for the Fordham Foundation and NCSE's Louise S. Mead and Anton Mates in their 2009 study published in Evolution: Education and Outreach. Mead and Mates commented that the standards were "[w]eak on evolution," and also criticized them for including "creationist jargon" -- in particular, using the word “theory” only with relation to biological evolution.

The proposed new standards (PDF) would still refer to evolution as a theory; Jim Woodland, the director of science education for the Nebraska Education Department, told the World-Herald that the decision was intended not to "stir the hornet's nest." The newspaper added, "In common usage, the word theory has come to mean 'a hunch,' suggesting a conclusion reached based on incomplete evidence. However, the American Association for the Advancement of Science defines a scientific theory as 'a well-substantiated explanation ... based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed.'”

Woodland said that in the new standards, "We're treating evolution the way that we have it now. ... We expect the students to develop an understanding of biological evolution." Chuck Austerberry, a professor of biology at Creighton University and a member of the Nebraska Religious Coalition for Science Education, which supports the teaching of evolution in the public schools, reviewed the draft standards and regarded them as "appropriately neutral" on philosophical and theological matters. "We just want [students] to learn the science," he said, "to learn it in a neutral, respectful environment."