Pedagogy in Action > Library > Structured Academic Controversy > Examples > Science and Religion

Science and Religion

Claudia Khourey-Bowers, Kent State University
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This material was originally created for On the Cutting Edge: Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.


Evolution is a fundamental theory of modern geosciences and life sciences, yet it is one of the most controversial issues within science education. The origins of the controversy have both historical and philosophical roots.

Learning Goals

Students should become knowledgeable about why a controversy exists, its roots, and through this multi-perspective approach, study can develop deeper understanding of scientific knowledge and ways of thinking.

Context for Use

I have used this lesson with my pre-service science teachers for the last 6 years. It has been an effective instructional strategy. The SAC has resulted in deeper content knowledge about evolution as well as in broadening their perspectives and making them more understanding of their own and others' views. I place the SAC about two-thirds of the way through the semester, to allow students and instructor time to develop into a learning community, as well as to allow students adequate time to read.

As with any SAC, advance preparation by the students and instructor is essential. The Town Council itself will take 60 - 80 minutes, depending on the depth of arguments that you expect from the students. Students should be given significant out-of-class preparation time to do the necessary reading and to construct their presentations, and they may need some in-class time to prepare with their teams. Students should have the guiding questions ahead of time as they prepare their comments.

Description and Teaching Materials

Town Council Meeting - student guidelines

The purpose of this exercise is to provide an opportunity for examination of dominant and alternative perspectives on what science is, what religion is, and the existence and location of boundaries between these disciplines.

Outline for using this activity

1. The class will be divided into 3 groups. All students are to read Rocks of Ages (Gould, 1999). Each group will be assigned a role from Barbour's typologies and is given a specific task/perspective to become "experts" on for the Town Meeting. The "conflict" group is responsible for presenting information from Barbour, (2000), pp. 93-99; the "independence" group is responsible for Barbour, pp. 99-103,;the "dialogue" group is responsible for Barbour, pp. 104- 111; and the "integration" group is responsible for Barbour, pp. 111-117. Supplemental ideas, information and reading are encouraged. (worth 25 pts)

2. Each group will prepare a detailed, yet concise written summary of their position (conflict, independence, dialogue, integration) vis a vis the science-religion continuum. This should be typed, 2 - 3 pages, and can be used during the Town Council. (worth 20 pts)

3. Each group will also provide explanation and references to the National Science Education Standards (1996) regarding the relevant scientific concepts. Use the NSES standards/indicators to frame your understanding of the nature of science. You may also want to refer to the "quiz" taken and discussed in class.

4. During the town meeting, each group will present, according to the protocol, their summary information, as well as prepared responses to sets of questions. These prepared responses should be typed, and represent in-depth thinking of all group members.
    1. What are some of the historical or philosophical origins of your group perspective?
    2. What contemporary initiatives or movements support your group perspective?
    3. How does your group perspective on Evolution and Continuing Creation align with the NOMA principle, or Independence perspective?
    4. How does your group perspective on Evolution and Continuing Creation align with NSES' view of Nature of Science?
    5. What other questions that we ask may be answered from multiple domains of knowledge?
    6. Is your group perspective on Evolution and Continuing Creation consistent with the aims of public education in America? What are the aims of public education? (worth 30 pts)
5. Following the town council, each student will be asked to respond to open-ended questions about the instructional value of the process of structured academic controversy, as well as a personal reflection on the broader issues.

Student materials should be distributed several weeks (at least) prior to the structured academic controversy activity. The Town Council Agenda (below) provides the format for the structured academic controversy itself.

Town Council Agenda (Microsoft Word 26kB Oct8 08)

Teaching Notes and Tips

This structured academic controversy typically challenges deeply held beliefs of some students, so it requires great care in establishing the rationale for the exercise. I emphasize that one instructional goal is to expand individuals' perspectives and understanding of others' points of view, not to try to change personal beliefs. As part of this, the role assignments are made publicly and randomly, so students' personal beliefs don't ever need to be revealed within the classroom setting. The second instructional goal is to convey the importance of teaching evolutionary theory in science classes, as opposed to avoiding evolution or incorporating non-scientific beliefs into the science classroom. Teaching or learning about evolutionary theory does not necessitate in changing one personal beliefs, but in changing one's professional knowledge base.

Most interesting, at the conclusion of the structured academic controversy, many students are eager to talk about how the activity changed their way of thinking and more importantly, how the exercise gave them insights into others' points of view.

Most of the suggested resources focus primarily on the controversy surrounding evolutionary theory. However Barbour's book, Science and Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners,draws additionally from the fields of astronomy, genetics, quantum physics, and neurosciences to develop the various boundaries, or typolgies, that exist between science and religion. In addition to Barbour's book, there are many other sources which give detailed information from the "conflict" perspective. For some background information on the creationism perspective, I have written a summary (Microsoft Word 30kB Feb20 07) of R.W. Hanson's book, Science and Creation: Geological, Theological, and Educational Perspectives. You may also find the a book by Massimo Pigliucci (Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science) helpful for its overview of the types of creationism and origin of the conflict.

Watch a video of this activity - from the Affective Domain in the Geosciences


Multiple approaches to assessment are possible with the structured academic controversy format.

Students are expected to prepare their comments ahead of time, so those can be assessed with criteria that would be used with an essay or research report. Student or team performances during the Town Council can be assessed from the standpoint of effective communication, presentation style, respect and listening to other perspectives, or quality and organization of information.

More importantly, use of SACs can change student beliefs and attitudes. Student beliefs and self-knowledge can be assessed through a short written response about the instructional value of the process of structured academic controversy, as well as a personal reflection on the broader issues. Student understanding of the nature of science can be assessed by use of pre-test /post-test measures. An example of a simple, open-ended instrument to assess nature of science is provided.

Pre and Post test about the nature of science (Microsoft Word 31kB Oct8 08)

References and Resources

All Perspectives (Conflict, Independence, Dialogue, and Integration)

Barbour's Typologies

Barbour, I.G. (2000). When science meets religion: Enemies, strangers, or partners?: New York: Harper San Francisco.

Johnson, D., Johnson, R., & Smith, K. (1996). Academic controversy: enriching college instruction through intellectual conflict. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports, 25(3), 1-123.

Scharmann, L.C. Enhancing an understanding of the premises of evolutionary theory: The influence a diversified instructional strategy. School Science and Mathematics, 90(2), 91-100.


Bybee, R. W. (2000). Evolution: Don't debate, educate. The Science Teacher, 67(7), 3.

Clough, M.P. (1994). Diminish students' resistance to biological evolution. The American Biology Teacher, 56(7), 409-415.

Gould, Stephen Jay. (1999). Rocks of ages: Science and religion in the fullness of life. New York: Ballantine Publishing Group. Notes on this publication

Hutton, Thomas. (2003). Legal Guidance: What the Courts Say About Teaching Evolution. The American School Board Journal, 190(4), 33.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1994). "Structuring academic controversy." In Handbook of cooperative learning methods. Sharan, S. (Ed.), Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

National Research Council (1996). National science education standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Tort, P. (2001). Darwin and the science of evolution. Harry N. Abrams: New York.

Zimmer, C. (2001). Evolution: The Triumph of an idea. HarperCollins: New York.

Conflict and Independence

Hanson, R.W. (1987). Introduction: Science or belief, a false dichotomy. In Hanson, R.W. (Ed.), Science and Creation: Geological, Theological, and Educational Perspectives. New York: Macmillan Publishing.

Pigliucci, Massimo (2003). Denying evolution: Creationism, scientism, and the nature of science. Sunderland, MA : Sinauer.

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