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Arkansas Curriculum Conference 2016

On November 4th, I presented a workshop on evolution at the Arkansas Curriculum Conference. The workshop was sponsored by TIES, the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science, an organization dedicated to helping teachers teach evolution, itself sponsored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

Unfortunately, the wifi died right at the beginning of my talk, so the videos embedded in the talk were not able to be played. So for those of you who attended, and for those of you who would like to see the talk, I am posting the powerpoint file here. I know, it is incredibly overdue, but in my defense, the world took a sharp turn into weirdness right afterwards and then we had Thanksgiving. Any of you who are teaches or students also know what a crazy time of year this is. At any rate, here is the powerpoint. I will see about trying to record some audio for it at some point, along with the other talks I have meant to put up. We will see how that goes over the holidays.

If you go to the TIES website, you will see a version of this talk. I have modified it to include more information on fossil formation, which I skimmed over, for the most part, in the workshop itself. I focused more on the slides discussing why learning evolution is important in the first place. It has far more everyday impacts than most people imagine and is well worth understanding even if one believes in creationism or doesn’t care about esoteric biological concepts at all (for instance, if you are a cutting edge software or robotics designer).

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In addition, there are a couple of other things I wanted to post. First is an icebreaker activity that TIES provided. In this activity, participants determine whether or not a series of statements about evolution are true or false. In a twist that catches most people off guard, they are ALL false. They are all commonly held beliefs about evolution, but they are all wrong, which makes a good way to start a conversation about the topic.

evolutionfactorfictionunitopener

Here are the statements and a very brief explanation of why they are wrong, as supplied in the document. Further clarifications and discussions are happily supplied upon request.

1. Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution.
The theory of evolution existed before Darwin; it was Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection that became widely accepted.

2. Living things adapt to their environment.
As a whole, living things are adapted to their environment. Individuals are unchanging, they either live or die based on the traits they are born with.

3. Biologists “believe” in evolution.
Science is not based on belief. The theory of evolution provides a model for scientists to understand the relationships between organisms on the planet.

4. Monkeys will eventually become human.
There are many species of primates and all are adapted to their environment. A chimpanzee would not turn into a human over time anymore than a cheetah would turn into a lion (or vice versa).

5. Evolution is JUST a theory.
Saying that it is “just” a theory implies that it is a guess, or that its not well supported. There is much evidence to support the theory of evolution, as well as direct observation of species change.

6. Only atheists accept the Theory of Evolution.
Scientists of many religions across the world accept evolution, and do not find it incompatible with their faith.

7. If evolution is disproven, creationism must be true.
A problem with logic (disconfirming evidence). Even if you disproved evolution, you would have to develop and support another model of organism diversity. Disproving one, doesn’t
prove the other.

8. No one has ever seen evolution happen.
In organisms that reproduce quickly (like bacteria) changes in species can be directly observed, such as resistances to antibiotics.

9. Order cannot come from disorder, so evolution is false.
Many instances in nature show molecules and substance organizing, such requires energy. The sun provides the energy that ultimately fuels all of life’s processes.

10. There is evidence that dinosaurs lived with humans.
There is no evidence that suggests humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time.

11. Scientists regularly debate that evolution occurs.
Scientists debate elements of evolution, relationships between organisms, and fossils. The only place the evolution debate really happens is in the social settings.

12. Creationism is a valid scientific theory and should be presented with evolution. Creationism violates the scientific principle of natural causality.

13. There are no transition fossils. Museums are filled with fossils that show intermediate species.

14. Carbon dating is not accurate, therefore the age of the earth cannot be determined.
Carbon dating is one of many methods used to date the earth. Taken as a whole, the evidence is overwhelming that the earth is very old.

There is also a dice game that I want to share with you demonstrating how natural selection works, but that will have to wait until next post.

 

Who Ya Gonna Call? Mythbusters?

 

Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of the Mythbusters do a great job of presenting commonly held myths and testing them in a variety of ways, trying and adjusting and retrying experiments. They even sometimes revisit myths with a new point of view and new questions. It is this that I think is the key to their success. They present science as a series of questions and experiments, revising and retesting, a dynamic process. Starting with what people believe and then presenting the evidence to show the real answer is an important part of the educational process. Derek Muller, who runs the Veritasium Youtube channel, did his PhD dissertation on just this topic, showing that simply providing the information did not increase learning. Unless the misconceptions the audience already held were first acknowledged and dealt with, people thought the material was clear and that they understood it, when in fact they had learned nothing at all.

All of this involves asking lots of questions. But what some teachers view as a downside to this approach (although it absolutely is not) is that invariably you will wind up with lots of questions you can’t answer. Your students will ask questions you have no idea what the answer might be. So what do you do in this case?

Hopefully, you already knew which of these options is the better choice. But where do you go to learn more? Some questions can be rather esoteric or have answers that can’t be easily looked up. Fortunately, hordes of scientists are at your beck and call to save the day. Here are four websites where you can ask real scientists any question you like. None of the scientists on these sites will do people’s homework for them, but are enthusiastic about answering questions.

Ask A Scientist

askascientist-footerAsk a Scientist has 30 scientists that will answer questions on biology, chemistry, physics, space, earth and environment, health, technology, and science careers. In addition, they have links to videos for some questions. You can look at answers to past questions and ask your own. Even though it is based in the United Kingdom, with all the scientists being from the U.K., they will answer questions from anyone.

Ask a Biologist

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This site is also based in the United Kingdom, but has scientists from all over the world. This site is limited to biology and paleontology, but it has over 100 scientists who can answer questions. Some are doctoral students, some are the tops in their field with decades of experience. All of them are experts in what they do and all of them are there to help. They have answered thousands of questions, all of which can be searched and read. If you don’t find what you are looking for, ask your own question. You might even find that you have started a lengthy discussion of your question between several experts, as has happened from time to time.

Ask a Biologist

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This Ask A Biologist is a National Science Foundation grantee and is hosted by Arizona State University. Again, it is limited to biology and is run by the biology faculty and graduate students of ASU. So on the one hand, you might think they might be more limited. But ASU has an extensive biology department and this site has much more ancillary material than most of the others. They have activities, stories,coloring pages, tons of images, videos, and links to other information. They have a teacher’s toolbox, providing easy searches for teachers to find exactly what they want, searchable by topic, activity, and grade level. In short, while they have several scientists available to answer questions, that is but one aspect of this educational site.

Mad Sci Network

MadSci

The Mad Sci Network has a huge amount of information. You can ask a question about anything. The site has experts from world class institutions available to answer questions. They have a searchable  archive of over 36,000 questions already answered, so they may have already answered your question. In addition to the search features, they have several categories listed, in which you can pull up all the questions in those categories. They have a “Random Knowledge Generator” if you just want to have fun browsing at random. They also have a series of what they call “Mad Labs”, which are activities and experiments you can do at home or in the classroom. They have links to more information and resources elsewhere, including general science, educational methods and techniques, museums, science fairs, suppliers, and more.

So there you have it. When you are faced with questions you can’t answer, don’t try to bluff your way through. Who ya gonna call? Hundreds of scientists from around the world, that’s who.