Archive for January, 2010

Climate Change and Sustainability: Maybe it should be Stewardship

Topic: Stewardship in Conservation | 0 | Tags: None

According to the Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS) “year of science,” May was the month to focuses on sustainability and the environment.  Recently I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on sustainability with a previous director of the EPA.  It was an interesting discussion on policy and implementation. Many question were directed as to the focus of the past and current administrations on environmental concerns.  During that discussion the Brundtland Commission statement used to defining sustainability “Meeting our own needs without limiting the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Often the discussion would address the interactions that occur with sustainability between the environment, economic and social dimensions.  These are often called the pillars of sustainability.  Even though how these dimensions interact was debated, the importance of sustaining our environment for future generations was the overall conclusion.  When given the opportunity I asked the previous EPA director what could teachers do to help prepare students about sustainability and it’s complex interactions.  After he provided his response I smiled, as I was aware that many of the ideas he proposed were similar to those suggested in NABT’s Position Statement on Sustainability.   Visit NABT website for greater detail, but let me highlight just a few of these suggestions.  If you have other good examples, send them to NABT so that they can be included as good practices in teaching on sustainability and the environment so other teachers can learn from your example.

·      Expose students to the beauty and intrigue of nature.

·      Foster debate of environmental and other social issues

·      Allow students to express individual leadership and civic action, which promotes long-term, visionary thinking and encourages equity, social justice, peace, health and healing.

·      Introduce the topics on renewable energy, energy from the sun and wind and other renewable resources

·      Lead by example, help your schools to make substantive and well-demonstrated effort to recycle and conserve energy, water, and other natural resources

·      Explore how your school community works, including water and energy use, CO2 produced per student, the amount of materials procured, the amount of materials recycled, etc…

·      Follow principles and guidance set forth by organizations devoted to the teaching and practice of sustainable living


The teaching of responsible use of our environment may be one of the most important things we do.  Teaching by example may be the best way in which we can actually accomplish a sustainably minded society.So maybe it should not be sustainability, but Stewardship!  Sustainability is still a self-directed, self-needing, self… response.  Maybe we should remember that the World is NOT ours, but if we are to be living in it we need to work with it, help it, renew it …Stewardship!

We Need More Mr. Ps in Biology Education: Strong in Biology, Strong in Science, and in Science Education, Professionals!

Topic: Professionalism | 0 | Tags: None

The academic year is flying by and there are still things needing to be done before we can put the books to rest on this year’s classes.  For those in the midland of the USA, you have about 10 more weeks of classes while those in the East and Canada will be going to mid June.   Let me provide if I can a bit of encouragement for all of you as you head into these last few months.A teacher in NJ, a member of NABT during its early years, was known for being a hard teacher who loved his students.  Let me call him Mr. P.  Mr. P’s classes were full of activities, laboratories, and individual and group projects.  His class was always cluttered with so many things going on and always looked messy, but clean.  He was also the Jr. High and JV. Wrestling coach and had polio when he was young.  But his students loved him because he cared for them.  This was not just a job, but a profession.  Mr. P constantly strove to be a better teacher each year. He went to conferences and professional meetings to learn how to be a better teacher.  He put in much time before and after school with his students.  He often would end the year with little thanks from his students, parents or the administration.  Yet, Mr. P persisted as wanting to be a professional biology educator.  His passion for biology, his passion for his students and his desire to be a professional biology educator set him apart from many of his colleagues.  At least that is how it appeared to his students.Mr. P has long ago retired, but his influence continues on.  Many of his previous students are now biologists, physicians and others working in the public health arena, research and others have gone into teaching.  One interesting and previous student, who had attention deficit disorder before it was even recognized, was so highly influenced by Mr. P and his teaching that he followed his example and became a biology teacher and a wrestling coach.  Let’s call this new teacher Mr. M.  Mr. M has been awarded several awards at the school for excellence in teaching and service to the teaching profession.  In a sense, Mr. P’s impact continues today after years of retirement though M. M.  You may ask how I, as an Indiana University Professor, know about Mr. P; well I was that impressionable young student.  I can still remember his class and the impact he had on me to this day.  I remember the chewing out I received for not putting my full efforts into my work, my first science project and many of the laboratories I completed with him. My profession as a teacher was highly influenced by Mr. P but the impact on my teaching did not stop him but was influenced by my university professors and fellow colleagues.  Probably the most impact has been through my involvement with NABT.   I have been blessed to meet so many secondary and university teachers like Mr. P at NABT meetings and their impact on my teaching continues today.  Let me encourage you to keep up the work you are doing, even though you don’t hear it from your students.  Continue with a passion in the field you have chosen and give it your all; continue to influence the next generation.  In November this year, come to the conference in Denver to meet so many other teachers just like Mr. P.  Share in your experiences with them professionally and completely infuse your teaching with exciting new ideas.  And while this is going on, you will become personal friends and colleagues with Mr. P-like teachers from around the world.

Teaching Students Evolution with Patience, Respect and the Nature of Science

Topic: Professionalism | 0 | Tags: None

The Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science’s (COPUS) year of science has chosen February’ theme as “Evolution.” Darwin, born in February 1809, published the Origin of the Species launching the theory of Evolution; the foundational theory for all of biology.  Evolution, the National Academy of Sciences states, is “the central concept of biology.” Theodosius Dobzhansky (1973) once said about evolution, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.”

Evolution continues to be met, in the United States, with much public debate and public challenges in the education community to its veracity.  These debates often end in landmark court decisions like the Scopes trial in 1925, Epperson v. Arkansas in1968, Edwards v. Aguilar in 1987 in and of course the Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School in 2005.  From all the public debate one would think that the scientific community was in discord over evolution, yet under examination the scientific fields has no discord.  Evolution is consistently being tested and used, as all robust theories are, to develop future questions and predictions.  Yet if there is no discord within the science community, why is there effort after effort to alter or challenge the teaching of evolution in schools?  We have moved from Creationism as science to Intelligent Design as science, to teach the “Controversy” and now to teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution. Why single out evolution? 

According to Berkman et. al., (2008) found in a nationally representative survey of teachers concerning the teaching of evolution that one in eight high school biology teachers still present creationism as science and almost one in six believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.  Teachers who hold creation science or intelligent design beliefs or teachers who have had little training in evolution spent substantially less time teaching evolution than teachers who had more training in evolution or hold evolution as scientifically valid theory.  James Williams (2008), in The Scientist, stated that graduates in science disciplines and universities in Britain and around the world have a poor grasp on the meaning simple scientific terminology.  If the graduates of our universities and the teachers of science themselves do not understand the nature of science (NOS), then how will they be able to teach it properly and how will our students learn it properly?

So what is the solution?  The answer may be contrary to what you expect, we need to teach for understanding of the NOS and address the students long held beliefs with patience and respect.  Some in the scientific community would have you avoid addressing non-science issues in science classrooms.  Michael Reiss, past director of education at the Royal Society, Britain’s academy of science was removed from his position for suggesting such an approach as reported by Daniel Cleary (2008) in Science.  After Science published, “Crossing the Divide” by Jennifer Couzin (2008) concerning Stephen Godfrey struggle at becoming a scientist from out of a strong faith-based childhood, Craig Stevens (2008) responded that Science magazine should never print anything on the struggle with learning evolution because it gives the non-science approaches credibility.  But the approach of avoidance does not work in education.  Eugene Scott of the National Center for Science Education, in “Creation and classrooms” (2008) advises that responses from the teacher with a shut-up-and-take-it-elsewhere approach will be perceived as a humiliating personal put-down therefore obstructing rather than encouraging enquiry and understanding.  This does not mean we are to bring all kinds of non-science ideas into the classroom; on the contrary we are not to bring any of them into the classroom.  However when we teach and our students struggle with their prior learning, that we must treat our student’s prior belief with respect and not just dismiss their beliefs or we will not be able to teach the student.  Andrew Whipple (2008), who has taught biology for 20 years at an evangelical university, responded to Couzin’s article about Stevens that he understands and agrees that we need to be willing to listen to the concerns of those holding contrary positions.   He calls us to move from our dogmatic pronouncements to a more humble approach.  This humble approach may provide what we as teachers desire the most, “teachable moments.”

Recent research at the university level supports this approach of engaging students’ beliefs rather than dismissing them as an effective way to teach evolution.  Steven Verhey (2005) study demonstrates that when students apply an understanding of the NOS to the study of evolution and to prior beliefs they begin to truly understand the NOS and the veracity of evolution as theory.  This technique may be especially needed for training those pre-service teachers who are going into biology and/or science education.  Craig Nelson (2005) of Indiana University supports these findings but is concerned that the technique described may not be appropriate for high school students who’s intellect may be insufficiently developed at an early age.  I agree, yet this technique may give us an understanding in how we all should approach the teaching of students in science with patience, respect for our students and a strong understanding of the NOS.

As we celebrate Darwin and Evolution during February, lets remember that when we teach this most important theory in biology to our students that we teach it using the NOS and we treat those students who struggle learning about evolution with the patience and respect they need and deserve.

Berkman MB, Pacheco JS, Plutzer E (2008) “Evolution and creationism in America’s classrooms: A national portrait.” PLoS Biol 6(5): e124. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060124

Clery, Daniel (2008): “Misjudged Talk Opens Creationist Rift at Royal Society” Science: September VOL 321 26

Couzin, Jennifer (2008): “Crossing the Divide” Science 22 February 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5866 pp. 1034-1036.

Creation and classrooms” Editorial (2008): Nature: September VOL 455, issue 7212, 25

Dobzhansky, Theodosius (1973) “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” The American Biology Teacher: March VOL 35:125-129)

Holden, Constance Editor (2005): “Two Views Better Than One?” Random Samples Science: November VOL 310 25

Nelson, Craig E. (2005): “How Can We Help Students Really Understand Evolution?” BioScience: November Vol 55, No. 11

Stevens, Craig W (2008):  Evolution and faith:  empathy is misplaced.”  Science: May 320, p. 745, 9

Verhey, Steven D. (2005), “The Effect of Engaging Prior Learning on Student Attitudes toward Creationism and Evolution.” BioScience: November Vol. 55, No 11

Whipple, Andy (2008), “Evolution and Faith: Empathy is Crucial” Science: May VOL 320 9 p. 745

Williams, James (2008) “What Makes Science ‘Science’” The Scientist: October VOL 2
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