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Earth & Space Systems - Pedagogical Connections: Creationism

Teachers of science today face significant potential controversy when enacting curricula containing reference to the formation of the Earth, geologic time scale and biological evolution. As various religious and secular constituencies battle over the teaching of creationism, intelligent design, and scientific theories for the origin and development of the Earth, teachers often find themselves caught between state and local school boards, parents, administrators and their own professional training and conscience.

Addressing the issue is essential given the stakes involved. As a capstone interdisciplinary science course, Earth & Space Systems is perfectly positioned to address this issue directly. This course gives pre-service teachers a pedagogical approach founded in the core of the scientific method to address the controversies around these issues in a fashion that should keep all parties engaged respectfully in the classroom.

Earth & Space Systems builds upon the engagement strategies encouraged for teachers in working with diverse populations in building a climate of respect in which all parties are free to express their whole truth without ridicule or fear of reprisal. With the door open to all belief systems, the scientific method is then applied to test the assumptions and conclusions of each of the systems under investigation. Students begin by reading about the debate regarding the teaching of evolution, the Big Bang and geologic timescale in public schools occurring in Kansas and other states.

The pre-service teachers are asked to use the scientific method to view each belief system, including the conventional scientific explanation, as a hypothesis resulting from observations of the natural world interpreted through assumptions specific to each belief system. The value of these competing hypotheses can be assessed by their ability to stand up to external examination via the technologies available to society.

Having years of exposure to the theory of plate tectonics in addition to study in this course, the students have a strong familiarity with the evidence used to develop the theories of continental drift and plate tectonics. The students are shown a 30 minute segment of a prominent creationist television series in which the young earth hydroplate theory is presented using the same lines of evidence geologists use to support plate tectonics. The pre-service teachers are asked to justify why one explanation for the data is any more valid than the other. This tends to challenge the students very strongly because the same evidence is used in each case. The difference comes in the underlying assumptions. The geologic explanation relies on validity of the Law of Uniformitarianism, while the other relies on the literal truth of religious teachings taught in the Bible.

Most students have never had to confront the assumptions behind scientific theories before and the what-if exercise which results opens whole new avenues of thinking to them. Students report greater understanding for the unease of some parents and students resulting from the scientific community's dismissal of their belief systems without acknowledging the assumptions inherent to science. While this dismissal is usually not intended out of hubris or arrogance, it is pervasive throughout the culture of science and science education. An awareness of this bias helps the pre-service teachers phrase scientific principles accurately within the context of certainty that should be ascribed to them.

For example, the answer to the traditional exam question, "How old is the Atlantic Ocean?" would usually be marked incorrect with an answer of 4400 years as a traditional Christian or Muslim student might respond. A better question, based on the Law of Uniformitarianism and your measurements of plate motion who old is the Atlantic Ocean? The answer to this question is unambiguous and can be safely answered by any student regardless of their beliefs.

All educational standards express what students are responsible for learning and what teachers are required to teach and assess. Whether or not students BELIEVE the assumptions which go into that material is for the individual student to decide. This provides teachers the ability to fulfill their obligations to curricular standards, professional ethics and the diverse beliefs of the students and parents they must work with. Students are not being brainwashed to believe any specific explanation. Rather they are being offered an explanation in the context of its assumptions for their own assessment.

Placing science within the context in which it can speak with authority actually strengthens the argument the scientific community makes through plate tectonics and evolution. Based on the feedback from students, it not only deepens their understanding of the science, but relieves considerable personal anxiety about confronting these issues in their lives and future classrooms.