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Addressing Creationism

Created by Rebecca Teed, Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College

This Earth history module is intended to assist science faculty who are teaching Earth history, evolution, or plate tectonics by providing them with access to solid information about creationism and about teaching science to students who may have creationist beliefs.

  • Creationism is the belief that someone (God, gods, some supernatural force) made the universe, or at least the Earth, or, in some cases, just humanity. The specific beliefs that are likely to create challenges in a college classroom are:
    • Young-Earth Christian Creationism: one major claim is that Earth is only 6000 years old
    • Intelligent Design, which seeks to disprove evolution.
  • These beliefs can make it difficult for students who hold them to learn about geologic time, evolution, or plate tectonics.
    • Creationist students may simply choose not to learn about these topics, or may have trouble understanding them, or may misinterpret them.
    • In extreme cases, creationist students (or their parents or politicians representing them) may argue with an instructor and object to having to study earth history topics.
    • Outside the classroom, debates over creationism and evolution have complicated the efforts of K-12 instructors to prepare students for college science classes.
  • Chimp skull followed by a chronologic succession of hominid skulls
  • Teaching Earth history concepts to students holding creationist beliefs can be challenging.
    • Ignoring or condemning students' beliefs does not make it easier for them to learn Earth history.
    • However, in this module, some suggestions for teaching science with an emphasis on what makes it science may allow instructors to help students bridge what appears to be a gap between faith and science.

Creationists in the College Classroom

According to a recent Gallup poll, more Americans describe themselves as creationists than as evolutionists (Brooks, 2001 ).

  • But how many go to college? Crapo, 1989 found that 30-40% of college students in public universities in several states held Young Earth Creationist beliefs.
  • The numbers for Young-Earth Creationists above do not include certain other kinds of creationists, including those who accept the idea that Earth is more than 6,000 years old and those who believe in divinely-directed evolution.
  • Do creationists take science classes? Certainly, if science is required for graduation or creationist students are interested in a career in medicine, engineering, etc. or are simply curious about other people's ideas about Earth history.
Learn More about Creationism Here.

Why Do Creationist Beliefs Hinder Earth History Education?

  • Student learning is heavily influenced by the prior knowledge they bring into the classroom with them (Schneps and Sadler, 1988 , NRC, 2000 ). Instructors need to find some way to engage students' initial beliefs about Earth history so that they will be able to learn new material.
  • Modern people need an understanding of how Earth changes over time because human beings now drive some of these changes and because we are affected by them. They need to understand extinction, genetic engineering, and resistance to antibiotics, among other topics, and this is not possible without a strong background in evolution.
  • Some creationists are trying to make it difficult for public schools to teach Earth history concepts like evolution and a geologic timescale that goes back millions (even billions) of years. Voters and teachers need to understand science so that evolution will continue to be taught in public schools and will be taught well.
Reasons to Justify Geologic Time, Evolution, and the Rest

How Can Earth History Instructors Teach Creationist Students Effectively?

If an instructor intends to teach evolution and geologic time in a scientific manner, there are a few things to keep in mind:

Fossil shell on matrix
Fossilized shell on matrix, penny for scale. Details
  • Engaging a student's prior knowledge does not mean attacking it, even when the instructor and the student have different belief systems.
  • Simply burying students in "the facts" of science doesn't help them understand why those statements are scientific. (Farber, 2003 , Alters and Nelson, 2002 ).
  • One option is to emphasize the scientific method and the philosophy of science in lecture from the beginning of the course (Farber, 2003 ). Instructors can contrast the purpose and methodology of science with that of religion.
  • History of Science: The Modern Synthesis
    Nature of Science: The Scientific Method
  • For an experienced instructor and students willing to seriously consider new and different ideas, controversy offers some interesting possibilities for teaching science and critical thinking. The evolution/creationism debate and the geologic time/Young Earth debates are not the only interesting candidates.
  • Teaching the Controversy
  • Another alternative to addressing creationism directly is to allow students to work out for themselves the age of a lake or a landscape, so that they can see for themselves how science works.
  • How to Teach Modern Science to Creationist Students

Science is a tool, so it is most important to show students how it works and how to use it. Convincing students of the validity of other people's scientific findings must come afterward.

  • So if students who enter an Earth class as committed creationists are likely to leave it three months later as creationists.
  • However, if they have gained an understanding of the mechanisms of evolution or radiometric dating or are working on critically evaluating scientific claims, they have spent their time in your class well.


These include reference about creationism and about teaching evolution and geologic time to students, including creationists.


Many thanks to Cathy Manduca, Mary Savina, the National Center for Science Education and four reviewers who contributed sources and ideas.

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