The Buzz

July 29, 2014

SC evolution update clears hurdle, headed for final OK

How evolution is taught in S.C. classrooms will not be as controversial as one creationist state senator had hoped.

The Buzz

A blog from The State's political team of Cassie Cope, Jamie Self and Andy Shain. Email tips to thebuzz@thestate.com.

How evolution is taught in S.C. classrooms will not be as controversial as one creationist state senator had hoped.

A proposed change to the state’s science standard for teaching evolution –– OK'd by education leaders Tuesday and sent to two S.C. education boards for a final approval –– will not allow a teacher to lecture on creationism, said state Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville.

Instead, it asks teachers and students to treat evolution as a theory –– tested through experiments and subject to change as science develops.

Advocates of keeping religion out of science classrooms do not think the addition is necessary, calling it an attempt by creationists to make evolution scientifically controversial when it is not.

But, they add, the language agreed to Tuesday defines science as the gathering and testing of information, and asks teachers and students to apply the scientific method to evolution, as they would any aspect of science.

The proposal says “evolution, as with any aspect of science, is continually open to and subject to experimental and observational testing.”

Robert Dillon, president of South Carolinians for Science Education and a College of Charleston science professor, said he hopes a science teacher reading the standard “would teach her entire course –– whether it be biology, chemistry or physics –– with an understanding of the scientific method, and that she would not single out evolution.”

On Tuesday, a six-member panel made up of two education boards that approve all changes to state education standards unanimously OK’d the approach to teaching evolution. The proposal now goes to the full State Board of Education and Education Oversight Committee for adoption.

Evolution is the only science standard the two boards have left to update from the state’s 2005 standards.

Fair, an Oversight Committee member, wanted high-school students learning evolution to develop arguments for and against Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory of natural selection. But the proposed standard did not include that directive.

The new language comes from the National Science Teachers Association and is not meant to make evolution itself controversial, said Melanie Barton, the Oversight Committee’s executive director. The association says scientists do not dispute whether evolution has occurred or is occurring. Instead, the debate lies in how exactly evolution is taking place.

Under the revised evolution standard, teachers would be expected to know any recent scientific developments involving evolutionary theory, Barton said.

The language came about as a compromise with creationists who wanted to give teachers and students more room to view evolution skeptically.

Fair said the proposed language will lead to more “critical thinking” in the classroom. It could allow students to ask questions about creation theories other than evolution.

Dillon, the Charleston science professor, said a similar fight over the standards occurred in 2005. Then and now, he said, creationists’ strategy has been to “direct controversy to evolution.”

Dillon, a self-described Presbyterian, said he keeps separate his faith in a spiritual world and his belief in science –– the study of the natural world. Fair and others who attempt to explain their religious beliefs with science do so at the detriment of science or their faith, Dillon said.

“Don’t sully Christianity,” Dillon said. “You’re just bringing it down.”

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