Teachers Teaching Teachers How to Teach Evolution

Updated on April 27, 2018
CatherineGiordano profile image

Science, philosophy, and religion are frequent topics for writer and public speaker, Catherine Giordano.

TIES is an organization dedicated to helping middle school teachers teach evolution better.
TIES is an organization dedicated to helping middle school teachers teach evolution better. | Source

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.

(1) Pew Research Forum Religious Landscape Study

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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)

Year
# of workshops
# of presentations
# of States
2015
8
2
3
2016
24
17
15
2017
45
30
23

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.

Bertha Vazquez

Bertha Vazquez is a middle school teacher and the founder of TIES.
Bertha Vazquez is a middle school teacher and the founder of TIES. | Source

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 A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body 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.

Tikaalik is an extinct fish having many tetrapods (four-legged animals) features.It is may represent the evolutionary transition from fish to amphibians.
Tikaalik is an extinct fish having many tetrapods (four-legged animals) features.It is may represent the evolutionary transition from fish to amphibians. | Source

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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Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Catherine Giordano

    I welcome your comments.

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      • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Giordano 

        3 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

        Kathleen Cochran: Thanks for your comment. Many people share your view about reconciling religion and science with respect to evolution.

      • Kathleen Cochran profile image

        Kathleen Cochran 

        3 weeks ago from Atlanta, Georgia

        I have no conflict between a God of creation and evolution as the means He used. This article was a good read. I see why you've been viewed 1,000,000 times. Thanks

      • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Giordano 

        6 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

        Mellowman26: I don't think you understood the video very well. You have misrepresented what the video said. I suggest watching it again. It is a very simple overview of the subject and therefore, doesn't get into a lot of detail.

        To your question about why Ties is needed: All teachers need instruction in the subjects they teach. Science is a very broad topic with many different areas of study, such as physics, biology, anatomy, ecology, chemistry, geology, etc. The middle school science teacher is expected to teach all of them, but she can't be expected to be an expert in all of them. Often the teacher is trying to stay a chapter or two ahead of her students. Evolution is particularly difficult because there is so much misinformation on the topic.

        Consequently, there is a need for TIES to help teachers understand evolution and how to teach it to middle-school students. I'm sure it would be a good idea to have similar programs for some of the other sciences as well.

        I'm not sure I understand your point about "creation." Did you say that you think science should be applied to creationism. That is impossible because creationism is defined as "revealed truth" and thus cannot be studied scientifically. If one tries to use science on creationism, one ends up with evolution science.

      • profile image

        Melloman26 

        7 weeks ago

        Hi Catherine, I watched the video and question some of the statements. Natural selection: "99% of species have become extinct"... 2011 National geographic articles state that extinction of species studies flawed- 160% overestimated... In another, that 87% of all species have not yet been discovered... With "theory" as with statistics almost any idea can be "substantiated". Another statement seemed to (a mere "laymen") be fundamentally flawed; that species naturally are drawn to diversity within their own groups...ie. opposites attract and yet as human beings go, that seems to generally be quite the opposite. Of coarse this is just my .02 from a simpleton, community college, associate degreed opinion. If theory and concepts such as Dawkins "TIES" program which "instruct" other teachers are so badly needed; why is it that other widely accepted standard subjects of academia and the physical world as well as reading, writing and arithmetic need no such pedantic treatment?!

        I think that the deeper you look, the more information you can "find" (ie. other's ideas) which will support and confirm the belief you inherently subscribe to. True scientific objective approach it seems-is rarely ever applied to creation versus evolutionary "science" unfortunately...

      • annart profile image

        Ann Carr 

        2 months ago from SW England

        Your hard work and attention to detail is always evident. It must take you some time to put articles like this together.

        I'm out of teaching now, as I'm several years retired and my daughter is a primary school assistant. However, I'll pass it on to the specialist school for dyslexics that I used to work in, to see if anyone's interested. They teach 13-19 year olds.

        Thanks for the information.

      • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Giordano 

        2 months ago from Orlando Florida

        Ann Carr: It is so nice to hear from you. And thanks for the compliments.I put a lot effort into my writings. Now, about TIES, I think it is a great.to expand this into other countries. Do you know a middle school teacher? Maybe she would like to work with TIES to do it in England. I'm sure they would give her all the help she needed. Go to the TIES website and use the "Contact Us" button to get the ball rolling.

      • annart profile image

        Ann Carr 

        2 months ago from SW England

        As you know, Catherine, I'm a retired teacher of literacy, as well as English and French. My science knowledge is minimal but I wish my teachers had been more dynamic as I'm interested in so much of it now. Teachers need to have the best information at their disposal, no matter the subject.

        I can't understand why 'evolution' clashes with religion (though I know the arguments). Evolution makes sense and we have such evidential material to make it so.

        Thanks for this informative and educational hub. I've never heard of TIES here though there may be an equivalent - I'm off to look it up!

        I always enjoy reading your hubs as they challenge and inform at the same time, often a cut above many other writers here.

        Ann

      • profile image

        starcatcher2 

        2 months ago

        Nice article !

      • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Giordano 

        2 months ago from Orlando Florida

        Linda Crampton: Thanks for commenting. Bertha Vazquez is a very special program who has developed a great program. There may be some evolutionary biologists-to-be in her classroom. .

      • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Giordano 

        2 months ago from Orlando Florida

        Larry Rankin: Leprechaun catching sounds like fun.

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        TIES sounds like an interesting and useful organization. Thanks for sharing the information about the organization and the interview with Bertha Vazquez, Catherine.

      • Larry Rankin profile image

        Larry Rankin 

        2 months ago from Oklahoma

        Has evolution theory helped move science forward? Yes.

        Has creationism helped move science forward? No.

        Let's say I really think they should teach Leprachaun catching in math class. And I think it's disrespectful to my religion to do otherwise.

        Does catching Leprachauns in anyway advance mathematics? No. This concept at its very heart is flawed. So in math class why not do the things that advance math?

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        2 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Really cool. We will start with symbiosis tonight. Thank you much.

      • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Giordano 

        2 months ago from Orlando Florida

        Doris James-MizBejabbers: Both religion and science attempt to explain the natural world. The more religion takes a scientific view, the better (in my opinion). I have never heard the term Sacred Geometry, but I like it. Math can be beautiful. Thanks for commenting and thanks for the compliments on my writing. . .

      • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Giordano 

        2 months ago from Orlando Florida

        TIES is totally free. So you can use it to teach your son when you think he is ready.

      • MizBejabbers profile image

        Doris James-MizBejabbers 

        2 months ago

        This is a wonderful idea to prepare science teachers to teach evolution. My father taught school for a few years and was a firm believer in Darwin's evolution, which I learned at his knee. However, having a religious mother, I learned to temper my belief in evolution with a semi view of a supreme creator. Today, I'm happy to report that science and religion are melding into what may one day become a unified belief. Take, for instance, Sacred Geometry. There is no doubt that, regardless of how it came about, the universe is created geometrically. From that spiritual viewpoint, the universe is scientifically created and orchestrated, and it is becoming more accepted by many in the scientific community.

        Catherine, this article is very well-written and researched.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        2 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Just a point that irks me. Students do not get science until 4th grade or middle school depending. So a special, fee, program for my son and work at home.

        Thanks for shedding some light here.

      • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Giordano 

        2 months ago from Orlando Florida

        Eric Dierker: Darwin got some things wrong when he developed his theory of evolution, but the essential elements of his theory have held up quite well. The way science works is that new knowledge supersedes older explanations. As you said, science itself evolves as knowledge changes. Thanks for your comment.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        2 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        A very interesting piece. The case for the planet evolving is something that should be taught. From Bronowski to Darwin we see the ascent of living things. In the micro we must admit that humans evolve withing their lifespan.

        I do not buy into the "absolute theory of evolution". Even Dawkins evolved during his life. It is axiomatic that the notions of evolution evolve. What is fact today - flat earth is fiction tomorrow. You simply cannot have evolution without evolution which means it changes.

        The days of the Scopes Monkey trial are behind us, we have evolved.

      • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Giordano 

        2 months ago from Orlando Florida

        FlourishAnway: Maybe my reply to Mary Norton applies in reverse here. "This is a science class, not a religion class." Of course, in some cases you don't want to challenge the teacher because she has power over grades. It is really outrageous how religion sneaks into the classroom. Thanks for your comment.

      • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Giordano 

        2 months ago from Orlando Florida

        Mary Norton: I think the best way to handle this situation is to say "I am a science teacher. I know about science. I am not qualified to teach religion." Thanks for your comment.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        2 months ago from USA

        I really like her explanation of theories using Germ Theory and Heliocentric Theory. Great examples. I’m a firm believer in evolution, no question for me. My daughter has had teachers, however, who injected their religious views into teaching science and that was a great disservice to the students. (Save it for personal time.)

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        2 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        I have faced this discussion in the years I taught Religion in high school. Some parents complained about my bringing it up as they strongly believed in the Adam and Eve story and that I had no business bringing it up in class. Up to now, many still hold on to this belief. I wish I have met Bertha Vasquez before.

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