Teachers Teaching Teachers How to Teach Evolution
Why Is Evolution So Widely Misunderstood?
According to the Pew Research Group(1), almost all scientists (98%) agree that life on Earth evolved over time.
- Why then do almost a third of Americans (34%) deny this fact?
- Why do another one fourth (25%) of Americans accept the general concept of evolution, but say that a Supreme Being guided the process?
In total, only a third of Americans (33%) understand that evolution is a totally natural process.
In part, we can lay this problem at the doorstep of religion. Among Americans who are not affiliated with any religion, close to two thirds (63%) accept evolution. (To be fair, the members of some religions do better on this: 67% of Buddhists, 62% of Hindus and 58% of Jews believe evolution is true.)
However, there may be another reason for the widespread misunderstanding of evolution. Perhaps middle school teachers do not know how to teach evolution to their young students.
The Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES) is dedicated to helping with this second problem.
What are your views on evolution?
Which of these statements comes closest to explaining your views about evolution?
What Is TIES?
The “Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science” was founded in 2015 as a program of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS). (Professor Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and a well-known author of several popular books on the subject.) TIES is now a successful project of The Center for Inquiry.
The mission of TIES is to familiarize middle school science teachers with the information they need to meet the evolution standards mandated by their states. More specifically, the website for TIES states that they aim to give “middle school teachers the tools they need to effectively teach evolution and answer its critics based on new "Next Generation Science Standards.”
The website offers online resources for teachers, homeschooling parents, and anyone who is curious about science and wants to learn more. They conduct in-person workshops and online webinars. In addition, teaching materials are available for free on the TIES website, including ready-to- use presentation slides, hands-on activities, a guided reading, and a corresponding exam. Valuable online resources and recommended readings with student analysis questions are also included.
They magnify their impact by training other science teachers to conduct workshops in their own location. To date they have visited 34 states, doing 90 workshops and 42 presentations. The table below shows their progress over the past three years.
TIES Growth (2015-2017)
# of workshops
# of presentations
# of States
The director of TIES is Bertha Vazquez, a middle school science teacher working full time in a Florida school. She juggles her classroom duties with her work with the Institute.
Who Is Bertha Vazquez?
Bertha Vazquez has been teaching middle school science for 25+ years. During this time she has been recognized with several prestigious awards.
- She was named the “Miami-Dade Science Teacher of the Year” three times, in 1997, 2008, and 2017.
- She was the 2017 recipient of the “National Association of Biology Teachers Evolution Education Award”.
- She is one of the Florida’s 2017 finalists for the most prestigious science award in the country, “The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.”
I was recently able to meet with Ms. Vazquez. I could immediately see why she is so popular with her students and why she wins awards for her excellence as an educator. She is a warm and vivacious woman overflowing with enthusiasm. The term bubbly could have been coined just for her. Her love of, and knowledge of, science is immediately evident.
We sat down for a short Q&A session.
Q&A with Bertha Vazquez
Why did you become a science teacher?
I have always loved the study of biology. As a biology major in college, I came to understand how evolution truly ties together all branches of the biological sciences. I decided to pursue a masters degree in science education.
I wanted to share my passion with young people who are just beginning to understand the wonders of nature. Seeing the world through the lens of evolution is an awe-inspiring way to see the world. Not to mention, everything makes sense.
Did you face any obstacles as a middle school science teacher?
Middle school science teachers are expected to be jacks-of- all-trades. But it is simply impossible to be an expert in all of science. Competent? Sure. But expert? Not possible. And the difference between being just competent and being an expert comes out when you teach.
I often found myself having to teach concepts that were well beyond my area of expertise, such as meteorology. During these units, all I could do was to strive to stay a chapter ahead of my students.
What led you to found TIES?
I realized that we teach best what we know and love best. Our knowledge of a subject leads to our own enthusiasm for it, and this makes a significant difference in our students’ learning process. Passion is contagious.
It is very difficult for science teachers to keep up with all of the latest research across all of the subject areas they teach. The study of evolution, for example, is constantly reinvigorated by new discoveries from the fields of genetics, embryonic development (evo-devo), and paleontology just to name a few.
After discussing evolution education with Dr. Richard Dawkins at the University of Miami in 2013, I realized the importance of evolution as the underlying theme of the life sciences. I decided to share my knowledge and passion for evolutionary science with the other science teachers at my middle school. I conducted a series of workshops on evolution for them.
The highlight of the sessions was a guided discussion of the wonderful book, Your Inner Fish by Dr. Neil Shubin. This book uses the story of his remarkable discovery of the fossil “fishapod,” Tiktaalik (pronounced tik-TAA-lik) to launch into an exploration of shared history and common descent. A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body
How did you come to be part of the Richard Dawkins Foundation?
At a conference, I shared my experiences with Dr. Richard Dawkins. He intuitively understood the importance of giving the teachers of this impressionable age group the proper tools to teach evolution. He kindly offered to come to my school on December 11, 2014, and speak with teachers from all over Miami-Dade County.
For two-hours, I interviewed him about the Florida Sunshine State Standards on Evolution and Natural Selection, touching upon all of the fundamentals of evolutionary science. One of the teachers present approached me after the interview and mentioned that this was exactly the kind of content-intensive professional development experience middle school science teachers needed to confidently cover evolution in their classrooms.
One year after meeting Dr. Dawkins at the University of Miami, I had the opportunity to speak with him again. I shared my workshop experiences with him. He intuitively understood the importance of giving the teachers of this impressionable age group the proper tools to teach evolution. He kindly offered to come to my school on December 11, 2014, and speak with teachers from all over Miami-Dade County. This is an amazing testament to Dr. Dawkins’ commitment to education.
This was the cornerstone of the creation of the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES), a program of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS). This is an amazing testament to Dr. Dawkins’ commitment to education.
I’ve often heard people say that evolution is a “only a theory” and not a “law”, like for instance, “The Laws of Thermodynamics.” How do you respond to this?
Oh, boy! If I had a dollar for every time I heard, “Evolution is just a theory,” I’d be a rich woman. When somebody says this, I have to decide, do I explain what theory means, or do I politely walk away? The term theory can be used in everyday language to mean a hunch or idea that is not yet proven. You even hear scientists using it that way.
This is not even close to the definition of scientific theory. A Scientific Theory is a broad explanation for something that happens in nature. It is backed up by thousands of facts, repeatedly-tested hypotheses, and evidence from many different sources, etc. The idea that the Earth goes around the Sun is just a theory, the Heliocentric Theory. I ask my students if they want their surgeons to wash their hands before they operate on them. After all, that’s just a theory, The Germ Theory.
Laws DESCRIBE natural phenomena, theories EXPLAIN natural phenomena. Theories do NOT become laws, laws are not “stronger” than theories.
For more information on these distinctions, I recommend reading this webpost: Hypotheses, Theories, and Laws, Oh My!
Many people feel disquieted by the idea that evolution leaves no room for God. They say it makes them feel like life has no purpose. What would you say to these people?
I can’t answer that question for another person. I know I find great comfort and peace in the concept that we are connected to all of nature, and by extension, to the entire universe. My passion for the natural world has led me to many of our planet’s most beautiful ecosystems, from the deep pockets of Amazon jungle and the grasslands of Africa, to the ice shelves of Antarctica and the coral reefs of Australia. I have visited all seven continents and the marvels of the natural world never fail to delight me.
Finally, how can people help?
First, if you know a middle school science teacher, let her or him know about TIES.
Second, donations are always welcome (and needed). All the services that TIES provides are free to teachers, parents, and students.
A simple Explanation of Evolution Suitable for Children (And Adults Too)
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© 2018 Catherine Giordano