A Waikato University website on evolution has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from teachers, says biological sciences lecturer Alison Campbell.
“We held a teacher meeting in April for the Waikato and Bay of Plenty area from which we got some very favourable comments, but I’ve heard that teachers from Auckland and Wellington are quite taken with the site as well.”
The site is aimed primarily at providing expert support and quality material for New Zealand’s science teachers. It has been developed over eight months by a group of staff from the School of Science and Technology.
“Why did we do it? Penny Cooke and I have been concerned for quite a while now about the low level of understanding of evolutionary theory that we find in our first-year earth science and biology students. In addition, I’d been fielding requests from biology teachers for some sort of resource that could help them teach evolution.”
The team, which also includes Kathrin Cass and Kerry Earl, tried to produce a comprehensive site that dealt with many aspects of evolutionary theory and research and the related earth sciences concepts.
“We put a lot of effort into making it attractive and easy to use, and from teachers’ comments I feel we’ve succeeded in this.”
She has had other feedback, including a query from one person asking why there was nothing on “alternative theories” such as Intelligent Design. “I directed him to the site page addressing the nature of scientific theories. And then there was one from someone who intends to use the site to demonstrate the failings of scientists to their children, to counteract the teaching on evolution they’ll receive from school…”
Much of the content fits in with the curriculum objectives of the NCEA. “It was very important to us that the site has New Zealand flavour, as students are expected to be familiar with New Zealand examples of evolution.”
She feels there’s a lot of very good evolutionary material on the web, but it lacks this New Zealand focus.
The content will be reviewed annually so that the site remains accurate and relevant. “In human evolution, for example, there’s a lot of new information coming on stream every year, and it’s very hard for individual teachers to keep up with this, but we can offer them this service.”
The team felt that the sections on the nature of science and the context in which evolutionary thinking developed are essential areas of the site. “One of the main objections for many people is that evolution is ‘just a theory’. Similarly, science education research has demonstrated that students are more likely to come to accept the theory of evolution if they are given the opportunity to see how it developed, rather than just having the fact of it dumped on them.
Dr Campbell has heard that colleagues at other universities intend to use the Waikato website with their second and third-year students, and she has used it extensively with her own first and second-year classes.
“From what I’ve heard, my own students have found it a very useful resource.”
As well as dealing with the science of evolution, the site tackles, in rather oblique fashion, the old skeptics’ bugbear of creationism. Evolution is, the site says, probably the only theory to be rejected on grounds of personal belief.
There’s a section on the distinction between hypotheses, theories and laws, reinforced in the Frequently Asked Questions section, where “Isn’t evolution ‘only a theory’?” gets a clear response. The FAQs also include creationist-related queries such as: “If humans descended from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” and, “Living things have fantastically intricate features, shouldn’t they be the products of intelligent design, not evolution?” As well as providing brief answers to these, the site has links to external sites which cover these issues in more detail.
A section titled Darwin and Religion has quotes from such people as Pope John Paul II and Stephen Jay Gould on the proper relationship between science and religion, followed by interviews with two scientists who see no real conflict between the two.
The Evolution for Teaching website is on: sci.waikato.ac.nz/evolution/index.shtml