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Teaching Science to Creationist Students

Strategies

A common way to address creationist beliefs is to tell or show students that there are a lot of different ways to look at rocks and Earth history, but that the class will focus only on the scientific viewpoint (Havholm, 1998 , Wise 2001 ).

  • Students are free to believe what they will, but for tests and papers, they are responsible for understanding scientific observations and reasoning about the course topic.

For ethical, and often, legal reasons, you shouldn't attack anyone's religious beliefs. Scientific theories are secular beliefs, and if your students choose to disagree with those beliefs, they are entitled to their opinions.

  • However, stating that evidence indicates that the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and a presentation of that evidence is not an attack on religious beliefs as such.
  • Some of the most formidable arguments against Young-Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design are theological (i.e. O'Leary, 2003 , Dobzhansky, 1973 ), but much like creationist beliefs themselves, these arguments are not directly relevant to a science class.
  • Respect needs to go both ways: certain creationists argue that one cannot be a "real" Christian and accept evolution. This idea will (understandably) offend the many Christians who do accept evolution (i.e. Dobzhansky, 1973 ).

Science classes are generally not an appropriate place to discuss theology. So, rather than engage creationism directly, an instructor may want to:

Concerns

  • Are there Creationists in Your Classes?: Keep in mind that many creationist students may fear harsh judgement from you and from their classmates and may elect to keep their beliefs to themselves. You may never find out which, if any, of your students are creationists, let alone what sort of creationist.
  • Public Schools: K-12 instructors may need to ask administrators what their legal and ethical options are. Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education has compiled legal information on the Cans and Can'ts of Teaching Evolution (more info) in U.S. public school system.
  • Preparation:

    Part of the problem is that evolution itself is a complex topic and many instructors are expected to teach it without much academic preparation on their own part.

Defining Science

It isn't necessary to address Intelligent Design or Young-Earth Creationism specifically in order to emphasize the many differences between scientific theories and religious beliefs, both in their content and development.

Sample Lecture Outlines (with web resources):

Alternatively, at the university level, experienced instructors whose students are confident in their own beliefs and willing to respect those of others may actually want to Teach the Controversy.

Help Students Learn by Doing

Showing students evidence of the age of the Earth rather than telling them about may instill a deeper understanding of it (i.e. Miller, 2001 ; Zen, 2001 ). There are many ways to do this including:

  • Teach Earth History through the Development of a Landscape
  • ENSI's Evolution Lessons (more info) are really interesting. One of the neatest involves varves, annual layers that form in deep lakes and some rivers. You'll want to emphasize how we know that they are annual. If samples of Green River rock are hard to come by, perhaps substitutes could be found.
    • Tree ring cores (there are bristlecone pines over 6,000 years old)
    • Sections of stalagmites
    • Photos of Greenland ice core annual layers (at least 14,000 of them in some sections)
    • Photos of lake cores (often have stretches of 8,000-10,000 varves)

Resources for Addressing Creationism