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Web site teaches science of evolution

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Friday July 27, 2001

UC Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology, home to one of the largest collections of fossils in the world, will use two major grants to create Internet content that teaches students, teachers and the general public about evolution. 

The National Science Foundation gave the museum a $452,000 grant to launch the project this May, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute announced last month that it would contribute an additional $390,000 to the project this fall. 

The museum’s Web site – one of the first Web sites ever created – is extremely popular. More than two million people visit the site each week to check out its rich mix of photos and clear writing on the history of life on earth. Pages dealing with dinosaurs are particularly popular. 

“We have an edge: People love fossils,” said Judy Scotchmoor, director of education and public programs for the Museum of Paleontology. “We want to use that to our advantage.” 

The museum has more than 900,000 plant, vertebrate and invertebrate fossils, drawn from some 60,000 locations around the world. But, other than a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, a giant flying reptile and some dinosaur skulls on display in UC Berkeley’s Valley Life Sciences building, the museum has no exhibition space. 

Thus the emphasis on Web site development. 

For the new project, museum staff will create an online course of evolution for K-12 science teachers everywhere. The course will examine the evidence supporting the theory of evolution; the different levels of evolution; case studies in how the theory impacts everything from HIV to agriculture; a history of how the theory was developed and a detailed examination – and rebuttal – of common arguments against the theory. 

The museums Web site,, already has some basic background information on evolution, Scotchmoor said. But this new project will give teachers looking for ways to enrich their teaching of evolution “one stop shopping,” Scotchmore said. 

“That doesn’t really exist anywhere in a format that’s really easy for teachers to explore,” she added. 

When completed four years from now, the site will include an array of lesson plans that teachers can use in the classroom to drive home what most scientists consider one of the most important concepts underlying modern science. 

The project comes at a time when the teaching of evolution is still routinely challenged by some parents and teachers, and many K-12 science teachers are ill-equipped to teach the subject to their students, experts said Thursday.  

In 1999, the Kansas Board of Education adopted standards that sought to de-emphasize the teacher of evolution in public schools (a decision that has since been rescinded). Last year, Pennsylvania proposed science standards for its public schools that would have required students to study data that “supports and does not support” the theory of evolution. The standards were revised after over 100 scientists addressed letters of protest to the Pennsylvania Board of Education. 

California’s state science standards — approved in 1997 — focus strongly on the theory of evolution and make no mention of any alternative theories, Scotchmoor said. Still, there are some vocal opponents of evolution as it is currently taught in the state. 

Fazale Rana is vice president of “science apologetics” for Pasadena-based Reasons to Believe, a group of religious scientists who believe the Bible offered the final word on all scientific questions, and who are working to martial scientific evidence for the theory of creation as it is presented in Genesis. 

“We are not anti-evolution,” Rana said Thursday. “There is evidence that could be viewed as supporting the evolution paradigm. But there is also evidence that, in my view, calls into question whether or not we can declare evolution to be a fact.” 

Rana, a biochemist by profession, said California schools should at least present creationist arguments against evolution to students for their consideration. 

Scotchmoor disagreed. 

“That’s like saying we should give equal time to people who believe the earth is flat,” she said. 

Nevertheless, science teachers throughout the state must often contend with the skepticism students from religious backgrounds bring to the study of evolution, according to Christine Bertrand, executive director of the California Science Teachers Association.  

“A lot of people – and students in particular perhaps – don’t understand how evolution and religion coexist,” Bertrand said. “There is a misconception that if you believe in evolution you cannot believe in God. That’s certainly far from the truth, but I think teachers grapple with that issue.” 

And for teachers who in some cases are not well-versed in evolution themselves, the controversy around the issue can be enough to keep them from giving the attention it deserves in the classroom, according to Scotchmoor.  

As Bertrand put it, “There’s no question that a lot of teacher don’t have a solid science background.” 

Scotchmoor said she hopes the Museum of Paleontology’s Web site will give teachers the confidence and factual ammunition to give evolution the attention it deserves. 

“If you take a look back you realize that the majority of people who were coming up with these ideas were deeply religious,” Scotchmoor said. “It’s a debate that won’t go away, but what we are trying to do is make sure what happens in our science classrooms is reflective of good science.”