[Reprinted with permission by the National Association of Biology Teachers from The American Biology Teacher 2001; 63 (4).]
The nightmare of every biology teacher happened at our school. Creationists petitioned the school board to have creation science added to the biology curriculum. The outcome was mixed.
Why did it happen at Jefferson High School, Lafayette, Indiana, in the shadow of Purdue University? It seems reasonable to assume that if you are not teaching evolution, you greatly reduce your chances of a confrontation. As you increase both the time spent on evolution and the effectiveness of your instruction, the risk of creationist intervention should logically increase.
After an introductory unit on the nature of science, we teach one semester of ecology and one semester of evolution, with genetics and the cell included in evolution. John Moore's deductions of evolution are the skeleton upon which we build the second semester's study (Moore 1993). In addition to teaching the big ideas in biology, we spend considerable time teaching life skills with goal setting, group learning, student choice, and oral testing. We use several tools that increase the chance that the 80% of the time spent in labs will result in critical thinking skills development.
Because the class is team-taught, student-centered, and constructivist, students tend to enjoy it and they learn (Randak 2000). These factors work together to create an environment that stress students with creationist beliefs. To relieve that stress, we teach a comprehensive 5-week introductory unit on the nature of science. It includes not only the scientific method but a condensed history of science and a consideration of how science is distinguished from nonscience. The commitment to developing a deeper understanding of the nature of science comes, in part, from our involvement with a NSF-sponsored ENSI program (ENSI 2000). The ENSI philosophy assumes that if students develop an understanding of what science is and how to distinguish science from nonscience, they will have fewer problems when confronted with evolution (Nickels 1996). In the past it worked. This time it did not, and we wondered why.
Contrary to our expectations, the entire initiative to add creationism to the curriculum was student-driven; no adult took an obvious role. We know from talking with students that one of our chemistry teachers offered a great deal of support for the creationist view. In the past, he had spent the first several weeks of school preaching the creationist dogma; he appeared to have stopped because of administrative pressure, but he recently started preaching in his classroom again. The inspiration from this one adult may have been the reason this creationist action happened or it may truly have been a student-initiated response to our effective teaching of evolution. Our superintendent holds this latter opinion. He feels that creationist parents and students are upset because we teach evolution effectively.
The school's Christian Club served as the springboard for the initiative. These students organized and obtained hundreds of student signatures and dozens of faculty signatures on a petition requesting that "creation science" be added to the biology curriculum. We found that even among faculty the claim "It is only fair that both sides be presented" was very compelling (even 2 of our 16 science staff signed the petition). The chemistry teacher's signature was missing.
Most of the students and adults that signed the petition do not understand that science has little to do with the playground idea of fairness — that science is a competition of ideas where ideas are accepted on the strength of the supporting evidence. We spent considerable time refuting the scientific claims for creationist arguments both with individual students and in small groups.
However, we quickly discovered that our rejection of the science in "creation science" caused students supporting that position to take our criticism as an attack on their religious beliefs. To quote one student, "It is bad enough that you teach the earth is old; you should not be able to attack my evidence that the earth is young." When these students felt their faith was under siege, they often reverted to nonscientific accusations, such as "evolution is a religion" or "it is only a theory". To a teacher, it is humbling to see students in the midst of gaining critical thinking skills revert to such tactics.
One positive outcome was that the engagement energized all our students. We had more interest in the study of evolution and higher grades in that part of the course than ever before — even though this class had not performed as well as previous classes on the other parts of the course.
What is most encouraging about this story is the way our school corporation responded. The superintendent immediately expressed his support for our curriculum and kept us informed of his actions, while the biology staff mutually decided to maintain a low profile in the media. The superintendent educated the school board about the nature of science and the law and, with the help of the science department head, convinced the one wavering board member. The students were respectfully treated by the administration and the school board. At its public meeting, under the glare of local and national television lights, the school board was told politely that the curriculum would not be altered. It all seemed to work in the way a science educator would hope. But there are lingering issues that we see as a mixed outcome.
When things calmed down and I had some free time, I called Eugenie Scott at NCSE. I was curious to know how our experience fit into the larger picture. What she told me was a shock. I assumed that student-led crusades for "creation science" were common. They are not. I assumed that school boards and superintendents often do the right thing. They do not. I was told that our resolution was the ideal, not the norm, and at that moment I experienced more concern than any time during the many months of controversy.
Children crusading for creation science or "intelligent design" in the name of fair play is a compelling idea to an unaware public. If the tactic is used successfully in school districts less ideal than ours, it will surely meet with success — and science education will suffer.
[Ed: In the spring of 2001, Joe Baker, a high-school student at Pennridge High School in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, also petitioned the school board in his district to include creationism in the science curriculum. The request was not granted, and Baker graduated in May, after nearly a year of student-centered activism to oppose evolution in the curriculum.]