Evolution can be an emotionally charged topic in education, given a wide range of perspectives on it. Two researchers from Arizona State University are taking an in-depth look at how college professors handle it.
In a first-of-its kind study, scientists from ASU School of Life Sciences have found that a majority of professors teaching biology in Arizona universities do not believe that helping students accept the theory of evolution is an instructional goal. In fact, a majority of study participants say their only goal is to help students understand evolution.
According to the study’s authors, this finding was surprising. The exploratory research, published in the scientific journal CBE—Life Sciences Education, looked at how instructors perceived their role in helping students accept evolution. It also looked at the extent to which professors address the perceived conflict students may have between religion and evolution.
“Evolution is one of the key concepts in understanding biology,” said Sara Brownell, senior author of the study and assistant professor with the school. “My own view is, ‘Why would we want to teach evolution, if we don’t want our students to accept it? We teach them that cells have membranes and we expect them to accept that. Why should evolution be any different?’ Yet instructors in our study don’t see it that way. For most of them, evolution is separated—first, in understanding and second, in accepting the concept.” Brownell studies biology education, in particular how undergraduate biology students learn and how instructors can develop more effective ways to teach.
In biology education, evolution and religious beliefs are often “hot-button” topics that play out publicly in the media as an “either—or” scenario, in which one side wins and the other loses. This, according to the ASU researchers, may negatively affect students who have religious beliefs. Previous outside studies show that more than 50 percent of undergraduate biology students identify themselves as religious.
Yet, this study shows most instructors in Arizona neither acknowledge their students’ religious beliefs, nor discuss that there are a variety of beliefs about science. And, the study shows a majority of instructors are hesitant to discuss the topic in class.
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