Smithsonian Educator Explores Ways to Teach Evolution in Alabama Schools

Karen Carr, Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History

Reconstruction of a group of early humans butchering an extinct elephant at the site of Olorgesailie, Kenya.

It was five years ago when Alabama updated its science standards to require that schools teach evolution. Yet in many corners of the state, some textbooks still contain warning stickers saying evolution is just a theory. Briana Pobiner is a paleoanthropologist and educator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. She’s speaking at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Darwin Day celebration Thursday. Pobiner is using a federal grant to explore the best ways to teach evolution in Alabama high schools. She spoke with WBHM’s Janae Pierre.

Interview Highlights

Different ways of teaching evolution in Alabama high schools:

“In 2015, as I was writing this grant proposal, Alabama passed new state science standards that actually incorporate the word evolution for the first time. Yet in many places in Alabama, there are still warning stickers on high school biology textbooks that evolution is just a theory. So based on some previous work that I’ve done, we’ve developed some really engaging teaching materials that in part use human examples to teach core evolution concepts. There is good research that shows that high school students are particularly interested in evolution, about things they can relate to, particularly about themselves. So we actually think that this is an interesting kind of way in to get those students interested in learning about evolution.”

Evolution being a theory versus a scientific fact that people refuse to believe:

“The word theory in science is different than how we use it in kind of common conversation. You can say, well, I have a theory about this or that. But in science, a theory is basically a well-supported body of evidence that explains a natural phenomenon. And so for something to be a theory, it actually means that there is a lot of evidence for it. And so the other type of teaching resource that we’re developing in this project is for teachers to basically help students explore ideas about what are scientific questions, what are nonscientific questions. And the idea that, you know, all questions are valid. But in a science class, we need to just rely on evidence from the natural world to answer questions and explore the natural world. We try to have some pretty explicit and honest conversations about relationships between science and faith, in part to help students understand that scientists are not trying to target their faith, or make them abandon religion in order to engage with content about evolution.”

Do you expect any pushback from people who oppose the teaching of evolution?

“I think because evolution is in the state standards, it’s something that is mandatory to be taught in high school biology classrooms. When I was applying for the grant proposal, I got a really wonderful, supportive letter from the head of the Alabama Science Teachers Association saying they will be very supportive of our project. And I have had virtually no pushback from parents or from students. We’ve had some interesting conversations during focus groups with students about how they’re trying to wrestle with this evidence, how they’re trying to incorporate it into their lives, how they’re trying to, you know, either approach science and religion kind of separately, whether they can try to intermingle them. So I think it’s actually really led to some fruitful discussions.”

The importance of teaching evolution in high school:

“Evolution is a real cornerstone of understanding all of biology. It’s important even in understanding things about why we get a flu shot every year because the flu virus evolves. You know, why do farmers have to make certain choices when they’re planting or when they’re taking care of animals and selective breeding it? Evolution really relates to things in just about everybody’s everyday life. If we really think about it.”

Pobiner will speak at UAB’s Darwin Day celebration Thursday, February 6th, at the Alys Stephens Center. She will speak on ancient human diets and the evolution of meat eating. Here’s a taste (no pun intended) of what to expect.


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