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The Evolution of Science

part 1, 2, 3, 4

"I live about 70 miles away now, so I drive here every morning because I think High Tech High is such a wonderful experience," says one student.

Students come to High Tech High from all over San Diego County and beyond. The charter school is located in Point Loma, a wealthy neighborhood on the San Diego harbor and is housed in a former metal foundry. With classroom walls made of glass, exposed ceilings and what feels like 50 different colors of paint on beams and walls and floors, this looks more like the offices of a cutting-edge architectural firm than a public high school.

And although it's a public school, teachers have more freedom than in a traditional school to try new methods with their students.

"I'm a Christian," says one student, "so I naturally lean more toward the creationist side, and I really liked this project because in Andrea's class, she's the biology teacher, we talked about evolution and in our humanities class, Brett's had us read the book of Genesis and I thought that was cool."

This student is talking about Andrea Cook, the biology teacher at High Tech High and Brett Peterson, who teaches history and English. Together, they tried an experiment two years ago.

Andrea Cook says she went to Brett Peterson and said, she's about to teach evolution. What if they were to teach it over six weeks across disciplines? So while she's covering Darwin's theory in my biology class, he can read from Darwin's On the Origin of Species. And while they're at it, why not try reading from the Bible and various creation myths? They could visit the Institute for Creation Research, with headquarters a short drive away. Have speakers come and talk about intelligent design. And it all could culminate with a debate between the students, sort of a mini-Scopes Trial.

"And we assigned to the kids what side they'd play," says Cook. "They didn't get to choose. If somebody was more religious or in creation, they wanted to argue that side and if somebody was more on the science side they wanted to argue that side. We didn't let them argue what they wanted to argue."

"But then that said," says Peterson, "they would then come into my classroom where we would have Socratic seminars, and we would sit in circles and we would discuss and we would start out with what do you believe? You have everything from a 15-year-old Russian immigrant who is the antithesis of anything religious whatsoever and comes from a solely evolutionary standpoint to an African American girl who is very evangelical and will accept nothing but the story in Genesis. And so when you have those two mindsets and opinions from the get go, it creates for an interesting dialogue."

But outside of High Tech High, friends and colleagues, especially fellow teachers, had mixed opinions about this particular lesson on evolution.

"Those who fall more on the conservative side applauded our efforts and were ecstatic about what we were doing," says Peterson. "And my friends who fall more on the progressive side were honestly horrified at what we were doing and were specifically concerned for my professional safety. They wanted me to double check and make sure that I was allowed to do this. They knew the stories about what happens when you bring religion into the classroom and so they were concerned."

But nothing did happen. The teachers say there were no complaints from parents. Peterson says he was surprised by his own conclusions when the lesson was over.

"I consider myself exceptionally progressive," says Peterson, "and yet I seem to stand on the side with those who are on the right of the political spectrum, ardent creationists. And why can't we have that debate in the school? Not only the traditional western Christian view, why not bring in eastern philosophy, why not refer to Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth? Why not provoke wherever we can?"


Continue to part 4