“I want to send our scientists to rural schools and communities around the U.S. to talk about evolution for Darwin Day 2011.” Jory Weintraub’s words hung undigested in the silent air of the management meeting at our North Carolina center last July.
“You want to send our scientists where?” I jested. “On purpose?”
So begins Craig McClain’s account of the Darwin Road Show, a project he and his colleagues at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center undertook last February. McClain, who also blogs at Deep Sea News, describes the enthusiasm the postdocs and scientists he works with felt about the project, but also the worries they felt:
This is because all of us know that despite no shortage of evidence of evolution in the world around us, the concept remains controversial. Just under half of Americans believe the theory of evolution is not supported by any confirmed facts. A recent poll found that 42 percent of the public also believes the theory of evolution conflicts with their religious views. A new study also suggests that many public high school biology teachers may be overly cautious in advocating for evolutionary biology in the classroom. Their caution arises because they do not feel they understand it well enough to teach it properly, or they are trying to avoid a controversial topic, or in some cases because they do not “believe” in evolution themselves.
…In rural American primary schools, and even urban schools, the concept of the Darwin Day Road Show, as we came to call our program, was unprecedented. Dramatic as it sounds, it was, and is, an experiment with risks for the superintendents, principals and teachers who invited us into their schools and for the scientists who ventured into the unknown.
And your’s truly gets a shout out, too:
NESCent worked hard in advance to ensure the success of our visits. In January, all the Road Show teams participated in a workshop and role-playing led by Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education to prepare for the questions we might field during our visits. While we may excel in our respective areas of evolutionary biology, many of us had never immersed ourselves in the culture wars that surround the field. In breakout groups, we wrote our hopes and fears for the experiment.
Scientist Take Darwin on the Road
Our hopes? We wanted to convey the excitement and relevance of science, that scientists are part of the general public (you may even see us shopping at the grocery store) and to begin building a community of support for science. Our fears? We worried about being patronizing, being able to communicate effectively, not having answers and becoming caught up in contentious interactions. I later realized this training was only necessary to relieve our own apprehension.
That’s exactly right, and exactly what I was aiming for. In the three hours I spent with the postdocs, we spent no more than 5–10 minutes talking about creationism and what to do about it. Ultimately, my guidance to them was that they were unlikely to get creationist questions, that their audiences would probably be polite and interested in hearing about their science (especially if they presented it at a level appropriate to the age of their audience, and in a way that made clear how what these scientists find exciting and fun about their calling). If they got a creationist question, I told them, explain why creationism isn’t science, and talk about what science is and how science works. If someone tried to throw a creationist gotcha at them, I suggested that they refer the students to websites like Understanding Evolution, and to their teacher, and bring the conversation back to the exciting science they were brought in to discuss. To my knowledge, none of the Road Show’s participants faced any such questions. But that doesn’t mean creationist attacks didn’t come up:
As Gregor Yanega and I drove past a sign listing state championships of the Perkins County High School Plainsmen in Nebraska and into the small town of Grant, population around a thousand, I begin to feel anxious. Despite the phone calls and assurances, I still wondered how we would be received.
Perkins County High School proceeded cautiously as well, with emails and phone calls between NESCent and school officials instilling confidence on both sides. The principal wanted assurances that we were not pursuing any atheist — or any religious — agenda. We assured him that we did not want to broach these subjects any more than they wanted us to. Once we conveyed to teachers and administrators that our only goals were to discuss our research and talk about careers in science, much of the problems dissolved. We only wanted to excite others about the science that excites us.
And it sounds like McClain and the other scientists had fun, as did the students:
Over the course of our visits, the questions we received from students were thoughtful and founded in sheer curiosity about the science we presented. Indeed, the questions were the most exciting part of our collective visits. After I spoke about why giant squid are giant and the evolution of body size, a student asked, “Who would win between a giant squid and Chuck Norris?” Answer: “It depends on whether they were fighting on land or water.”
In response to Jenny McGuire’s talk about the rise of mammals, a student asked, “Why didn’t dinosaurs make a comeback?” McGuire was asked a variant of this question, “Why didn’t mammals also go extinct when dinosaurs did?” a few days later by a prominent university dean of sciences. Our visits served to remind us all that children, and even adults, are naturally and enthusiastically curious about the world around them.
Ours was not the only warm reception; other Road Show teams at Dan River Senior High School in Virginia and Muscatine High School in Iowa experienced the same. Indeed, at times we felt like rock stars! It is a rare and gratifying day in the life of any scientist when sixth-graders in Montana want your autograph. An Iowa student commented on a blog: “I really appreciated them taking time out of their day and week to come to our high school especially when we aren’t a well-known or famous school.” I often asked myself the reverse question when I entered a school. “Why would this school open its doors to me?”
When I asked all the Road Show scientists if they would participate again next year, without hesitation I received responses of “yes,” “definitely” and “absolutely.” Why? Because for all of us the Darwin Day Road Show was a gratifying adventure that no one will forget. From the landscapes with their silos, combines, center pivot crop circles, high school gymnasiums, to the indelible interactions we had along the way, we absorbed it all.
And it sounds like a major theme of my workshop came through clearly, which is that sending scientists into these schools isn’t just about evolution, but about humanizing science, and helping nonscientists understand who scientists are and why they do what they do. That the kids come away with a deeper understanding of squid biology would be icing on that cake. Resistance to evolution comes from an unfamiliarity with science, and a key way to fight that is by getting scientists out of the lab and into the community. It played out better than anyone could hope:
NESCent’s goal was not only to talk about evolutionary biology on Darwin’s birthday but also to offer an alternative to stereotypes of science and scientists in general. As Jennifer Verdolin stated, “We may be the only people they know doing anything like this.” Near the end of our visit to Perkins County High School, a 10th-grader told us, “You guys are not what I expected from scientists. You’re more normal.” After Verdolin’s talk on barking in prairie dogs to inform other prairie dogs about food location, a student in good fun began to yell “Cake, Cake!” to alert other students about the cutting of the birthday cake for Darwin. …
“There is already talk of planning something for Darwin Day next year, and I think this would have been unlikely without the Road Show visit this year,” said Dawn Simon, our host at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. “I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that for some students, it may have been a life-altering experience.”
[Teacher] Scott King emailed me from Nebraska a few days after my and Yanega’s visit, “Almost every day since you were here, I have heard students, parents and teachers talking about the presentation. Everyone has had good things to say, and I have yet to hear anything negative about the entire event. It was a major hit with my students, and they have asked if you will be coming back next year. I even had a student approach me yesterday asking me details about marine biology as a future career opportunity.” …
As I waited to depart Nebraska for Montana, I had hours to kill. I found myself in an outdoor sporting goods store searching for warmer socks. The young woman at the check-out asked if I am the “Giant Squid Guy” from the lecture two nights ago. My “yes” launched us into a dialogue that affirmed for me that our engagement, however brief, left a positive impression, one that could last a lifetime. Perhaps through the Darwin Day Road Show, we have gained some new participants in the conversation and inspired some future colleagues. And perhaps, it reminds us all that interactions between science and society need not be contentious. At its heart, science is about questions, and we all naturally ask them.
The scientists who traveled across the country to give these talks are heros, and the teachers and principals who brought them to these schools are even more heros. I’m proud to have played some small role in this grand and successful experiment, and I look forward to seeing other research centers replicating the experiment, and to seeing these postdocs take this experience with them to other universities, and to many more high schools and middle schools in years to come.
Shae Carter, 16, a 10th grader at Muscatine High School in Muscatine, Iowa, was pleasantly surprised by the visiting biologists who, she wrote on her blog, “told it like it is.”
When students recoiled and said “Ewww!” watching pictures of large jungle cats devouring their prey, the scientists told them: “This is what happens, people. Get professional.”
“I had imagined that these periods in the auditorium would be cold and boring,” Shae said in an interview. “But I liked it.”
And that’s what it’s all about.