What Does the Evidence Say?

A bag of paper bones.

That’s what instantly comes to Turtle Haste’s mind when asked to describe a pivotal moment in her long and distinguished career as a science educator.

She was a graduate student at Oregon State University, studying with Norman Lederman—“Mr. Inquiry,” Haste calls him—when she and her classmates were presented with the bag. Lederman told them that they needed to assemble the paper cut-outs of bones from the bag into the correct animal skeleton.

“How do you figure out what are the arms? What are the legs? Where the backbone stops and becomes the shoulders?” Haste recalls asking herself.

NCSE Teacher Ambassador Turtle Haste working with studentsShe was forced to rely on her understanding of bone function, and what she already knew about animal anatomy. Through the process of recreating an animal from a bag of bones, Haste confirmed for herself the power of hands-on, inquiry-based learning experiences. By posing questions, and using evidence to form answers, she discovered the importance of active learning and its capacity to help anyone, especially young people in a science classroom, make cognitive connections.

Recently, Haste engaged in that same activity. This time, though, she was the teacher, with her New Mexico middle school students, and she used actual fossils instead of paper cut-outs of bones.

“None of them got the fossils right,” Haste recalls, “and that’s okay.” The students soon realized that what they were doing was exactly what paleontologists and physical anthropologists do. “They got to see: here’s something that looks like a bird’s leg, here’s something that looks like a dog’s jaw, here’s something that looks like it could have come from me,” says Haste. By the end of the activity, her students saw themselves as scientists, examining evidence and making arguments. And, she adds, “they realized that these examples from the past are connected to today.” 

NCSE Teacher Ambassador Turtle Haste engages in a hands-on, inquiry-based activity outside with a student.Evidence is a word that comes up often when talking with Haste. “It’s not whether you’re right or wrong,” Haste continually tells her students. “It’s ‘What does the evidence say?’’” The importance of evidence is what she continually points her students toward in all their work, particularly when it comes to climate change and evolution. With these often socially controversial topics, Haste believes it is critical for students to engage directly with evidence to cut through misconceptions and misinformation.

A newly minted NCSE Teacher Ambassador, Haste is too modest to call herself a master teacher. Yet she has the awards and accolades to put her at the top of her profession. In 2017, Haste, who teaches middle school science at Desert Ridge Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was chosen by the National Association of Geoscience Teachers as New Mexico’s Outstanding Earth Science Teacher. She’s also a NASA Endeavor Fellow, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Planet Steward, and a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certified Teacher. Always looking to improve her teaching, Haste has even traveled the world with the NOAA Teacher at Sea program and the Fulbright Classroom Teacher Exchange program.

In 2017, when the New Mexico Public Education Department tried to weaken the treatment of climate change and evolution in a proposed set of new state science standards, Haste joined the campaign to resist its misguided effort. “I’ve never seen science teachers so impassioned about what they would be teaching, and why it was important,” Haste recalls. Through public hearings, letters to the editor, and protests, the community of science teachers and interested citizens finally convinced the department to reverse its course and adopt the Next Generation Science Standards in their original form. 

NCSE Teacher Ambassador Turtle HasteAs an NCSE Teacher Ambassador, Haste is one of 28 highly skilled teachers from around the country who are developing climate change, evolution, and nature of science units for use by colleagues and peers who are uncertain how to teach these topics. The teacher ambassadors are also leading professional development on the units, locally and regionally. And they are acting as mentors, supporting science teachers to acquire content knowledge and new pedagogical techniques while also navigating the challenging cultural landscapes they may face in their schools and communities.

“During my first years in the classroom, I experienced a lot of confrontations until I figured out how to not be the person perceived as a threat because of science. I know that if I had had a mentor, I probably would not have had as many issues,” Haste says, explaining why she signed on to become an NCSE Teacher Ambassador. “I don’t want anyone to feel alone in this practice. We need competent science teachers. And you can’t be that if you feel threatened by parents. Or by the community. Or by your boss. So we all need to work together.”

Haste continues to have a few students each year who question accepted science when it comes to climate change and evolution. The topics are particularly challenging for her middle school students, she says, because of their youth and limited life experience. In addition, she has students in her class with a variety of spiritual worldviews: Navajo, Cochiti, Apache, Roman Catholic—the list goes on. By affirming her students’ right to have their own views and perspectives, Haste helps them understand that science and their belief systems don’t have to be mutually exclusive. But when it comes to the science, Haste returns to the scientific pillar so critically important during Norman Lederman’s course: evidence.

“If a kid says, ‘I don’t believe that,’ I say, ‘What’s the part you don’t believe?’ And then, ultimately: ‘What’s your evidence?’"

A modified version of this post originally appeared in Reports of the National Center for Science Education 39(2). If you like this interview, you're going to love the whole issue.