Evolution for Educators: Resources,labs, workshops and real scientists

“I find great comfort and peace in the concept that we are connected to all of nature,” Bertha Vazquez, Director of the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES), shares with me. I first met Bertha two years ago, at the Florida Association of Science Teachers annual conference. “I love biology in general. As a biology major in college, I came to understand how evolution truly ties together all branches of the biological sciences”

This passion for the natural world has led her to many of our planet’s most beautiful ecosystems, from the coral reefs of Australia and the grasslands of Africa, to the ice shelves of Antarctica and the deep pockets of the Amazon jungle. And since I have a very similar passion (Morocco, Galápagos, or Ecuador this summer), I quickly befriended her.

Her involvement with TIES stems from a series of wonderful encounters with Professor Richard Dawkins.

“In 2013, I met Professor Dawkins when he was a visiting professor at the University of Miami. Our lunch conversation included the importance of evolution education in schools,” Vazquez says. She returned to her school with a renewed sense of purpose.

“I wanted to provide something meaningful for my fellow science teachers,” she adds.

She explains that science understanding is constantly expanding. It is very difficult for science teachers to keep up with all of the latest research across all of the subject areas they teach. The study of evolution, for example, is constantly reinvigorated by new discoveries from the fields of genetics, development, and paleontology just to name a few. Right after that encounter at the University of Miami, Vazquez offered her fellow science teachers a series of workshops on evolution.

“I met Professor Dawkins again in November of 2014 and told him how our previous conversation had inspired me to act. Unbelievably, he offered to come to my middle school and speak to the teachers who had attended my workshops,” Vazquez recalls.

The science supervisors of her school district realized what a tremendous opportunity this was and invited all of district science teachers to attend. Hundreds of teachers came!

“Shortly after that, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science asked me if I could re-create my evolution workshops for middle school science teachers nationwide,” Vazquez says. “I jumped to the challenge. I admit it’s been a very steep learning curve, but I am proud to say that since the inception of TIES in February of 2015, eighteen different TIES presenters have completed 37 workshops nationwide, from Omaha, Nebraska to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It’s been wildly successful.”

One of the main objectives of TIES is to promote teacher leadership in school communities. TIES is looking for educators who are deeply interested in evolution education.

“Our knowledge of a subject leads to our own enthusiasm for it, and this makes a significant difference in our students’ learning process. We teach best what we know and love best,” Vazquez explains. “Passion is contagious.”

TIES presenters can share their knowledge with their fellow science teachers and spread the passion for evolution education in their school communities. TIES pays teachers for presenting the workshop. In addition, by joining the TIES Teacher Corps, educators make an impact in our nation’s acceptance of evolution.

Vazquez shares that there is 60 % level of acceptance of human evolution among adults in the United States. In younger adults between ages 18 and 29, the number rises to 68 %. Biologist Sean Carrol believes it is education that accounts for the difference. “Over the past decade, the concerted efforts of various academic and scientific organizations have led to greater emphasis in textbooks and curricula on the central place of evolution in understanding life,” Carrol says.

I believe that one of the reasons why evolution is misunderstood is because it is associated with the phrase “Theory of Evolution.” I asked Vazquez for her thoughts.

“I see you are specifically asking me about scientific theory. That’s important,” she says. “The word ‘theory’ has two usages. A scientific theory is a broad explanation of something that happens in nature, backed up by laws, repeatedly-tested hypotheses, and many observations. Scientific theories include The Heliocentric Theory, The Theory of Gravitational Attraction, Atomic Theory, and of course, Evolution.”

The problem lies with  the word “theory” without the word “scientific” in front of it, which has another common usage. It is defined by the Oxford English dictionary as A hypothesis proposed as an explanation; hence, a mere hypothesis, speculation, conjecture; an idea or set of ideas about something; an individual view or notion.”

“The fact that this term has this second definition is quite unfortunate for those of us teaching evolutionary biology,” Vazquez explains. “Every science teacher knows what I am referring to. If I had a dollar for every time I have heard, ‘Evolution is just a theory,’ I could have retired in the Caribbean years ago. One of the most persuasive ways that teachers can explain this distinction is by asking students: Do you want surgeons to wash their hands before operating on you or a loved one? The chorus of ‘Yes, please!’ always erupts in the classroom after this question is posed. The clever teachers then casually add, ‘Why? That’s just a theory, the Germ Theory.’”

Richard Dawkins points out in his article, “Is it a Theory, Is It a Law? No, It’s a Fact”

“Our failure to get across Sense 1 [scientific theory] is partly blamed on an everyday tendency to leap straight to Sense 2: theory as tentative “mere” hypothesis. But we must admit that scientists themselves use “theory” in a way that might strike the poor layman as confusingly inconsistent. Let’s simply give up on trying to explain the special scientific meaning of “theory”. It is begging to be misunderstood by laymen eager to misunderstand, and even scientists are not consistent in their usage.”

Vazquez says that she knows of excellent teachers who point out the distinction between these two definitions over and over again in their classrooms and students still get it wrong, assuming all theories are mere conjunctures. “I agree with Professor Dawkins, maybe we should call Evolution something else,” Vazquez adds.

I ask Bertha why evolution should be taught now.

“Science has brought humanity so much, including clean water, abundant crops, longer life spans and a window into the cosmos. So many amazing discoveries and advancements all lend themselves to the simple methodology of science: ask questions, make observations, experiment, conclude, share, and start over and over again,” she says.

“Evolution is a stellar example of this approach to understanding. We are all aware that many people in this country do not accept evolution; it’s a reflection of their overall misunderstanding of science methodology,” Vazquez explains.

Vazquez’s passion for biology is inspiring. When she pulls her hair back to show you her preauricular ear sinus, otherwise known as a vestigial gill, then it gets serious!

“It’s a tiny hole just above my left ear, resulting from the incomplete fusion of the branchial arches during embryonic development,” she tells me. “In our earlier ancestors (fish), these openings developed into gills. In mammals, these openings should close all the way. I often joke that it’s a shame my vestigial gill does not actually work.”

TIES provides ready-to-use resources that teachers can begin to use immediately.  Participating teachers leave the workshops with presentation slides, labs, guided reading assignments, an exam, and a valuable resource list for their lesson plans. If you are a science teacher and would like to learn more visit their website or Facebook page.

For scientists who would like to get involved check out their TIES Partnerships Project. The project serves as a network for teachers and biologists in nearby areas to connect with one another. TIES hopes this will allow biologists to share their knowledge and inspire young students to continue learning more about evolution, as well as help teachers provide accurate information they can use to nurture that desire to learn.

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Carrol, Sean (2014) Is America Evolving on Evolution? Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-america-evolving-on-evolution/

Dawkins, Richard (2015) Is it a Theory? Is it a Law? No, It’s a Fact. Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. Retrieved from: https://richarddawkins.net/2015/11/is-it-a-theory-is-it-a-law-no-its-a-fact/

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