CU program aims to improve teaching of evolution

Andrew Martin, a professor in the CU-Boulder Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, directs the university’s Teaching Evolution Outreach Program. Photo courtesy of Hillary Rosner –

By Sarah McKee

Evolution is a fundamental building block of biology that underpins our understanding of the diversity of life today and how we, as humans, came to be who we are. Despite these truisms, almost half of Americans do not “believe” in evolution, public-opinion surveys show.

The Teaching Evolution Outreach Program at the University of Colorado Boulder aims to broaden the understanding of evolution in Colorado communities. The program’s focus is a two-day workshop held each August for K-12 teachers.

Evolution is not consistently taught in K-12 schools due to its difficulty to teach and the controversy that follows the subject. But fully understanding the ever-changing human condition and the characteristics of life requires knowledge of evolution.

Andrew Martin, a professor in the CU-Boulder Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, directs the outreach program and puts it this way: “I think of evolution as the scaffolding, like a tree, that you can put all the information about the world on that makes sense of the planet we live on.”

Educating children about evolution when they begin to learn biology will give them a framework to build upon which will help them understand the world they live in and increase their ability for science and reasoning in general.

Biology teachers face a challenging task with respect to evolution. The subject remains highly controversial in the United States, making it difficult to approach in the classroom.

This year, the Colorado Legislature considered an “Academic Freedom Act” for K-12 and higher education. The bill states that “the teaching of some scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning, can cause controversy….”

In February, the bill was postponed indefinitely—effectively killed—by the House Committee on Education. Other such bills have been introduced in many other states in the continuing effort to circumscribe the teaching of evolution in the American classroom.

The passing of such legislation would allow teachers to misrepresent evolution as one of a number of competing theories of the origin of life and to enable some lawmakers to undermine scientific theories that contradict their beliefs.

When Martin is asked if there is any “controversy” in evolution, his reply is simple: “There is none.”

His view is echoed across the scientific community, and, moreover, it is the only theory that has stood up to extensive, and repeated, testing. All respected academics agree that evolution is one of the established facts in science. Darwin’s Theory of natural selection has been accepted within all branches of biology and plays a significant role in other scientific disciplines such as psychology and anthropology.

The Teaching Evolution Outreach program began in 2006 and aims to encourage teachers in K-12 to be confident in educating students of all ages on evolution. Funding is provided by the National Science Foundation Graduate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Fellows in K-12 Education (or GK-12) Program.

GK-12 supports fellowships for graduate students in STEM fields, giving these students a vital opportunity to introduce cutting-edge science into the classroom. At CU-Boulder, graduate students from ecology and evolutionary biology are responsible for coordinating and running the workshop.

The outreach program has three main goals: 1) to integrate educators from all grades with students at CU-Boulder to strengthen the scientific community in Colorado; 2) to train educators in the effective teaching of evolution in the classroom; and 3) to provide educators with the skills to implement learning activities for children of all ages.

The August weekend workshops are offered to K-12 educators throughout Colorado. During the two days, graduate students will introduce teachers to learning goals and discuss activities that can be used in the classroom.

Subjects covered include toxins in plants, the evolution of disease, genetic engineering, a comparative study of primate skulls and antibiotics resistance. For each activity, teachers will be provided with the necessary skills and information to create an interesting and exciting lesson to engage the children and establish effecting learning.

Feedback from attendees has been extremely positive, with teachers coming away with an excellent background and basis to teach evolution in the classroom. Teachers from colleges, high schools, middle schools, elementary schools and non-profit organizations have attended the workshop. The number of educators attending the program has been steadily increasing since its introduction in 2006.

Martin hopes to extend the program further east into the rural areas of the state where evolution is not commonly taught. In the east of Colorado, agriculture is a prominent industry and is an area in which the effects of evolution can be clearly seen.

For example, if pesticides are widely utilized to protect crops, insects will quickly evolve to become resistant to pesticides. This is a recurring problem that has been an issue for crop farmers for generations.

Knowledge of genetic variation and understanding evolutionary biology provides farmers with strategies to work with these adaptations to minimize pest damage and essentially secure the U.S. food supply.

The Teaching Evolution Outreach program is sponsored by the CU Office of Outreach and Engagement.

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