May 07, 2008

Darwin on Trial in Indiana

Most mornings, I wake up and learn of the latest attempt by some nitwits' attempt to exclude or dilute education about evolutionary biology from science education. Witness yesterday's post about Matthew Linkletter and first rumblings of a Neocreationist campaign in Maine (by the way, there are also rebuttals from Maine residents Bernie Huebner and Thomas Eastlet today that are worth a read). People who support the position of such religiously-motivated, anti-reason traitors to solid education frequently pop up and say that students can't really understand the material, that they don't benefit from it in real life, and so why bother with it anyhow? Here's one now:

C-Fairer of Waterville, ME
May 6, 2008 12:16 PM
Believing whether a dinasour evolved into a chickadee or that God created man & woman has no value in improving S.A.T. scores, becoming a brain surgeon or making a good paycheck.

We adults, after years of more research, are still divided on the issue. As they will be.

Stop wasting my money forcing unneeded information on students and give them the learning skills to compete in the real world. Like talents a good job requires


That such arguments are meritless is eloquently demonstrated by an exercise that took place in a middle school science classroom in Noblesville, Indiana. Teacher Julie Meyer is putting Darwin's evolutionary theory on trial, and she's doing it in a very interesting and useful way. She's staging a mock trial in which some of her students take up Darwin's ideas, some take up Lamarck's, and there are attorneys for either side.
NMS students debate more plausible evolution theory

Noblesville Middle School science teacher Julie Meyer’s classroom/science lab was transformed into a court of law Monday as eighth-grade students argued the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and Baptiste de Lamarck.

Meyer said her Bronze team students are studying animal and plant adaptations over time. The trial, which was held during each science class, was to decide which theory was more plausible – Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection (organisms with traits best suited to their environment are more likely to survive and reproduce) or Lamarck’s theory of Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics (characteristics or traits developed during a parent organism’s lifetime are inherited by its offspring).

Attorneys for Baptiste de Lamarck’s theory of Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics Aubrey Hauenstein and Justin Vickery quickly discuss a fictitious point before cross-examining a witness during an evolution trial held in Noblesville Middle School science teacher Julie Meyer’s classroom/science lab Monday afternoon.All students are participating in the trial. Meyer said students applied for roles such as Darwin, Lamarck, judge, bailiff, witnesses, paleontologists, attorneys, court reporters and jurors. Each student has a different role in the trial but all students are doing the same research. Meyer said the “trial” gives each student a chance to participate in a different way that is best suited for them.

“The assignment has a common goal with different approaches to meet that goal,” she said. “It also enables students to think at a higher level and go beyond their comfort zone..."

During the course of the year, students participate in many hands-on activities including labs, debates, Monday’s trial, interactive Web quests, role playing and traditional school work.

“I once read that motivating a middle school student is like trying to start a fire with damp logs. I couldn’t agree with that statement more,” said Meyer. “If the students are given the correct embers and the fuel to start the fires, they can burn a flame that lasts a lifetime.”
Julie Meyer is a very good teacher; these kids are learning some valuable lessons about how science works. First and foremost, they're learning that you don't have to accept ideas just because some authority figure relates them to you. In science, as in a court of law, a case must be built upon evidence before an idea is accepted. Meyers' students have to examine the evidence and build a convincing case for their side while anticipating the evidence that could be presented by the other side. This is the essence of critical thinking, a skill which isn't emphasized enough in most classrooms today, science or otherwise. Contrary to what people like C-Fairer, quoted above, say about the utility of learning about the underlying principles of biology, the ability to construct and analyze arguments is a basic skill needed in any job not only in the sciences but also in business of any sort and even in a trade. An auto mechanic negotiating with a supplier over the cost of materials needs to have these skills at his disposal just as much as a contract negotiator or a scientific researcher. Science classes provide an opportunity to learn these skills more than any other. The subject matter of such a class is both abstract and empirical. It always addresses the real world from a logical basis, a bit differently than math (which tends to be almost entirely theoretical) or humanities (in which there is usually no way to test ideas).

Meyer's exercise — and this sort of thing must go on in other classrooms as well — is brilliantly conceived. I have no idea how students at Noblesville Middle School think of this teacher, but I think they're lucky to have her. They may not realize it now, but she's giving them a kind of education that you just can't get from memorizing facts out of a textbook. At some future point in their lives, a lot of the young students who have passed through Julie Meyer's classroom are going to thank her for the critical thinking skills that they'll find themselves using in ways they'd never considered when they were eighth graders.

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