My morning was spent at the local high school today, talking to the biology classes about the evidence for evolution. This wasn’t in response to any specific worries—in fact, talking to the instructor, it’s clear that they’re doing a decent job of covering the basic concepts here already—but that my daughter is in the class, and she thought it would be fun to have her Dad join in the conversation. I will say that it was very obliging of the Chronicle of Higher Ed to publish this today:
In a packed IMAX theater in St. Louis last month, a middle-school teacher took the stage and lectured some of the leaders in the American scientific establishment. In a friendly but commanding style honed by three decades in the classroom, Linda K. Froschauer told scientists that it was time for them to get involved in elementary and secondary education.
“Go home. Identify science teachers in your own neighborhood. Offer to help them,” she said. “Go to the board of education and speak up.”
Excellent advice! It gives an overworked teacher a brief break, lets you see what’s going on in the classrooms, makes the students a little more familiar with college faculty, and maybe it makes a few of them think and gives them a tiny bit more background. It was generally a very positive experience, although it does make me appreciate the work our secondary ed teachers have to do.
I gave a very informal lecture in which I confronted the whole ‘controversy’ about humans evolving from apes. I brought along a few transparencies and a human skull, and gave them an overview of three lines of evidence: transitional fossils, similarities in genes and chromosome structure, and “plagiarized errors”. I kept it fairly simple, using little of the technical vocabulary and defining what little I had to use, but tried to introduce some important concepts, like the taxonomic hierarchy and diagnostic characters and repetitive DNA and pseudogenes. I was also impressed that the students asked good questions, so I think they were grasping what I was talking about.
Boy, but high school teachers have a very different burden than I do. Having to give the same talk 3 times in a row is challenging—I was getting bored with me! The students also range in ability and interest far more than I’m used to…there were many who were attentive and curious (more than I’d expected, which is a very good sign), and there were some who were bored and rather disruptive (but not as many as I’d feared.) I tried not to completely neglect the troublemakers and engaged them a few times with questions, but I had it fairly easy since the regular teacher was there to hover over them and keep them in line. There’s a bit of drill sergeant rigor required in high school teachers that I don’t need at the university as much, I think.
I’d do it again, gladly…as long as I’ve got a few weeks to recover between days at the high school. The grade schools are where we have the most need to get more science into play anyway, so it feels like a productive birthday for me when I can talk to a few 10th graders. And any high school teachers out there—you’re doing an important job, and those of us up in the ivory tower of the university really do care about what’s going on in our schools. Don’t be shy about asking your local college science departments if we’d be willing to contribute in your classroom, I think there is a fair number of us who’d be happy to share our perspective.