Sunday, March 7, 2004

Ohio likely to put doubts into teaching of evolution

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Science teacher Tami Burns (standing) explains how to conduct a solar heat-flow experiment to freshman Andrea Ghantous during a science lab at Reading Junior/Senior High School.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/MICHAEL SNYDER
How did life begin? Did everything start with a big bang? Did God create the universe?

Questions like these have been at the center of controversy for nearly a century and Ohio is about to re-enter the debate.

On Tuesday, the Ohio Board of Education is expected to approve model science lessons - including a 10th-grade biology lesson with a critical look at the theory of evolution.

Most board members want to let students debate evolution in science classrooms.

The vote is attracting national attention, as Ohio public schools become the center of the debate on evolution versus "intelligent design."

Prominent organizations like the National Academy of Sciences have opposed the proposed curriculum. Endorsing the lesson plan are groups like the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit think tank. The institute's Center for Science and Culture challenges Darwinian evolution.

Ohio teachers have always been able to critically discuss evolution. But critics of the lesson plan say approval would make Ohio the first state to sanction public-school teaching of intelligent design, the theory that life is so complex that an intelligent being must have played a role in designing it.

Proponents say the lesson plan, which teachers would be expected but not required to follow next school year, simply allows a critical analysis of evolutionary theory.

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"There are some people who are so worried about students inquiring as to how much we know and don't know about the theory of evolution that they would rather have students not question it," said state board member Deborah Owens Fink, an associate professor of marketing and international business at the University of Akron.

Scientists say they don't dispute the need for critical analysis of scientific theories. Rather, some say, this lesson plan sounds too much like creationism, a God-based concept about the creation of life that they say violates the separation of church and state when taught in public schools. They cite Web sites and book references on intelligent design that are incorporated in the lesson plan as resources.

"It's not based in science," said Lynn Elfner, chief executive officer of the Ohio Academy of Science. "The creationists would argue the words 'intelligent design' are not there and that's true, but if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's still a duck."

A national debate

Ohio is the latest state to spar over the teaching of evolution, the theory that all species descended from a common ancestor and that changes occur naturally and over time in life forms.

Science standards and curricula on evolution have drawn fire in recent years in New Mexico, Minnesota, West Virginia, Georgia and Kansas. Just last month, Georgia's top education official dropped plans to remove the word "evolution" from the state's academic standards.

Debate erupted here in 2002 as Ohio began developing new science standards, or concepts that students in grades K-12 are expected to know and be tested on.

People disagreed on how to teach evolution, with some pressing for the inclusion of intelligent design. The state board compromised in December 2002 by including critical analysis of evolution.

In February, the board stated its intent to approve a set of lessons teachers could use to teach the science concepts. The 13-4 vote came after fierce debate and testimony from opposing groups, including the Intelligent Design Network, a national non-profit organization, and the Ohio Academy of Science.

The disputed lesson plan includes suggestions on how to guide students to critically analyze evolution. One lesson suggests a lack of evidence of major evolutionary changes in the fossil record.

However, evolutionists do use fossils as evidence oftransformations of species. They say fossils of transitional forms, like the Archaeopteryx, a reptile-like bird, show how some living forms evolved from earlier forms.

As a way to critically analyze evolution, the lesson plan encourages teachers to suggest that the Archaeopteryx is not a transitional form and that the fossil record instead shows sudden appearances of new biological forms. Critics say that belief is consistent with creationism.

Ohio school board member G.R. "Sam" Schloemer of Wyoming said the 21-page lesson on critical analysis of evolution is based on creationism or intelligent design and doesn't belong in public schools.

"There is no scientific evidence to support" intelligent design and creationism, Schloemer said. "Until Gov. Bob Taft gets involved and tells his appointed board members to forget about this, we will have it here in Ohio.

"That's in contrast to the governors of West Virginia, Texas, and more recently within the last month, the governor of Georgia, who said we are going to teach evolution and we're not going to bring in pseudoscience."

Orest Holubec, Taft's spokesman, said the governor supports the science standards and trusts the board will approve a curriculum based on the standards.

Supporters of intelligent design say the lesson plan does not refer to intelligent design.

"These standards limit themselves to simply addressing criticisms of evolution and I think that's perfectly appropriate," said John Calvert of Shawnee Mission, Kan., managing director of the Intelligent Design Network.

To suggest that evolution is the undeniable explanation for the creation of life is wrong because evolutionary theory assumes an intelligent being did not create life, Calvert said.

"When you ask the question of where does life come from, that unavoidably impacts religion," he said.

But the critical analysis unfairly singles out evolution, which is steeped in evidence and has been tested, said Marc Cron, science department chair for Harrison High School in the Southwest Local School District.

"I think that infers an intelligent design agenda," he said. "Why only have a scientific debate over evolution. Why not over plate tectonics? Why not gravity?"

Debate in class

Some teachers are leery of the proposed lessons, while others say they will continue to address students' questions as they arise.

Bob McMillan, biology teacher at Mount Healthy High School, said he starts his evolution lessons every year telling students he will stick to his area of expertise.

"I feel ill-equipped to teach theories that are not scientific in nature," he said. "If you want to learn about creation, then you need to see a priest, a pastor, a minister or someone more qualified to speak about it."

However, he teaches evolution as a theory and encourages students to critically analyze the theory. He tells students that people have other beliefs on the origin of life, including creationism.

Down the hall from McMillan, Edward Hornsby Jr., a physical and earth sciences teacher - and Evangelical Christian - said he doesn't preach his beliefs to students.

"Students need to be able to choose for themselves. I'm here to inform them but I don't want to push my beliefs on another person," he said.

Hornsby encourages critical analysis of evolution in his classroom.

"I tell them (evolutionary) theory has evidence to support it, but it's not 100 percent fact," he said.

Rick White, an advanced placement biology teacher at Finneytown High School said, "Some of the people making decisions, even at the state level, don't have a clear idea of how science works. In science, theory is something we take very seriously. It has withstood some testing over time. Evolution fits that definition very nicely. There's a huge amount of data suggesting life forms do change over time."

Students have conflicting viewpoints.

"Evolution and intelligent design should both be taught, said Sydney Bostwick, 17, a Norwood High School junior. "It is up to the teachers to teach and inform the students, and it is up to the students to decide what they choose to believe.

"If you only teach evolution, then it's like nothing else exists and that isn't true. After all, science is always changing and what we believe now might not be true 10 years from now."

Other students think intelligent design and religion-based theories on the origin of life should not be allowed in science classrooms.

"The main difference between science and religion is that religion is based on faith and personal belief, while science is based on fact and theory," said Daniel Zimmer, 15, a freshman at Sycamore High School.

"Evolution should be taught in school because it is backed by science. Religion should not enter into it. Saying that you shouldn't teach evolution in school because your religion says differently is like saying that Shakespeare shouldn't be read in school because you disagree with his plot lines."


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