I just read an article about a professor at the University of Kentucky, James Krupa, who ardently teaches about evolution as the basis for his introductory biology classes. This article brought several ideas to mind:
- Know your field, it’s goals and benefits, and what you want non-majors to understand
I realized early on that many instructors teach introductory biology classes incorrectly. Too often evolution is the last section to be taught, an autonomous unit at the end of the semester. I quickly came to the conclusion that, since evolution is the foundation upon which all biology rests, it should be taught at the beginning of a course, and as a recurring theme throughout the semester. My basic biology for nonmajors became evolution for nonmajors.
- Know your audience and the students you’re trying to reach
There are students who enroll in my courses and already accept evolution. Although not yet particularly knowledgeable on the subject, they are eager to learn more. Then there are the students whose minds are already sealed shut to the possibility that evolution exists, but need to take my class to fulfill a college requirement. And then there are the students who have no opinion one way or the other but are open-minded. These are the students I most hope to reach by presenting them with convincing and overwhelming evidence without offending or alienating them.
- Make sure that your students understand your discipline’s “jargon.” What does it mean for a verb to be “passive”? What is a “freedman” or a “consul”?
To truly understand evolution, you must first understand science. Unfortunately, one of the most misused words today is also one of the most important to science: theory. Many incorrectly see theory as the opposite of fact. The National Academy of Sciences provides concise definitions of these critical words: A fact is a scientific explanation that has been tested and confirmed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing it; a theory is a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence generating testable and falsifiable predictions.
- Consider whether it is worth tackling tough issues, like race or sexuality
Some colleagues ask why I bother, as if I’m the one who’s the provocateur. I remind them that evolution is the foundation of our science, and we simply can’t shy away from explaining it. We don’t avoid using the “g-word” when talking about gravitational theory, nor do we avoid the “c-word” when talking about cell theory. So why avoid talking about evolution, let alone defending it? After all, as a biologist, the mission of advancing evolution education is the most important aspect of my job.
- Know that sometimes the discomfort you cause students may payoff down the road…. a long ways down the road, and you may never know it.
And it’s a message that sometimes gets through. There’s one student I can remember in particular who took my freshman seminar on evolutionary medicine. He was an ardent evangelical Christian who believed in the literal truth of biblical creation. The seminar was very hard on him, and he struggled with the information, questioning and doubting everything we read. Several years later, our paths crossed, and we stopped for what turned out to be a long, easy chat. Now a doctor, he explained to me that, at the time, he was so upset with my seminar that he attended a number of creationists’ public lectures for evidence I was wrong. He said he found himself embarrassed by how badly these individuals perverted Christian teachings, as well as known facts, to make their argument. He wanted me to know that he came to understand he could be a Christian and accept evolution. Then he did something that resonates with any teacher: He thanked me for opening his eyes, turning his world upside down, and blurring the line between black and white.