Friday, February 11, 2011

Communicating Evolution

collecting insects

A recent New York Times article summarized a national survey of high school biology teachers published in Science. Its findings include that only 28 percent of teachers follow recommendations from the National Research Council on teaching evolution, 13 percent advocate creationism in their classrooms, the remaining 60 percent of teachers neither endorse evolution nor any alternate non-scientific explanations.

As the Director of Education at a natural history museum in Kansas, I was forwarded this article many times by friends and colleagues. Sadly, the results of this study are also not surprising; they closely parallel previous studies and my own professional experience. There is no question that evolutionary thinking is a fundamental concept that forms the foundation of modern biological understanding and current research, a point that has been emphasized by evolutionary scientists and educators. Nonetheless, the situation remains relatively static.

The story also illustrates a couple of important points. Firstly, it is not a Kansas thing — the absence of adequate of evolution teaching in schools (and even advocating non-scientific explanations) is a pervasive problem in the United States — and while some regions may seem more obvious or extreme on this issue, this is a national problem. Secondly, it highlights the crucial role that natural history museums and other informal science institutions play in communicating science to the public.

Museums play an important role in teaching evolution. Reports indicate that one in every five adults in the US has visited a museum or science center at some point in their life, which means that informal science institutions have a critical role in communicating evolution to the public. For some visitors, a museum will be their only opportunity to learn about evolution. In addition to teaching about evolution through exhibits and programming (like in many of our exhibits), many museums participate in research to explore a visitor’s understanding in an effort to communicate more effectively. See the special issue of Museum and Social Issues on evolution in museums as an example. My own "Understanding the Tree of Life" project explored how people interpret ‘tree of life’ diagrams in an effort to help design more effective graphics to support visitor understanding.

Would I love to see more and better evolution education in schools? Absolutely! Most museums offer field trip experiences for school groups, and many are involved in providing professional development opportunities about evolution for educators. I take pride in the efforts of museums, science centers, zoos & aquaria, nature centers and others in providing and an opportunity for students and teachers to explore evolutionary ideas through museum visits.  And as this study suggests, such experiences are more important than ever.