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Teaching Science to Religious Students: A Theological Perspective

Peter M.J. Hess, Ph.D.
Peter M.J. Hess

February 18, 2012
Room 220 (VCC West Building)
Vancouver, British Columbia

Science teachers are often challenged by students, parents, or the public about aspects of what they teach. Examples include scientific theories such as the Big Bang or biological evolution, and contemporary issues such as vaccination or climate change. How can or should a teacher respond to such incidents? The first step is to determine whether the classroom challenge is pedagogically legitimate, or whether dealing with it would constitute an illegitimate use of class time. The next step is for the teacher to decide whether the challenge can best be responded to from a scientific point of view, or whether it would be more appropriately approached from another perspective.

It may be that the classroom challenge is AAAS logoextrascientific in character, stemming from a student’s anxiety that some element of a scientific question or theory seems to challenge his or her worldview. Is a student unwilling to discuss the scientific evidence for climate change because he fears that it will carry political or economic implications at odds with what he has learned in his family? Is the student reluctant to discuss evolution seriously because she is afraid she will be forced to choose between (1) belief in the tenets of her religious tradition, and (2) acceptance of the evolutionary assumptions of modern biology?

The staff of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California have extensive experience assisting teachers negotiate the minefields of science denial. Using examples from cases we have encountered, this presentation will suggest effective ways in which teachers can protect the content of their science courses without discounting student or parental concerns. There are good ways to deal with science denial by leading students to a clear understanding of the philosophical background of an apparent conflict. One can show them, for example, how accepting a compelling argument for climate change need not necessarily entail acceptance of a particular economic policy. Reframing scientific questions in light of a clear understanding of a student’s worldview can go a long way toward defusing potential conflict.

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