How science education and differing beliefs can co-exist

In the most recent (2009) results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), U.S. students were outperformed by 12 of 33 industrialized countries in science literacy.  We can clearly be doing better, and the majority of Americans agree – in a recent survey conducted by Achieve, Inc., Americans ranked providing students with a world-class math and science education as the second most important factor in keeping the U.S. globally competitive. Improving math and science education ranked above both lowering taxes and investing in new technologies. Americans know how important scientific literacy is.

However, as CPE’s Director Patte Barth points out in her most recent column for the American School Board Journal, school boards can sometimes run into trouble when people in local communities have beliefs that may be at odds with science education. Science curricula that have included teaching children about evolution and geological time have historically been at odds with people who’s religion or culture may instill belief in creationism or intelligent design.  Though courts have consistently upheld that teaching religious ideas in science classes violates the Establishment Clause, many people think that if a “theory” such as evolution can be taught, so can a “theory” like creationism.

So how can we give our children an internationally competitive science education while still being sensitive to everyone’s beliefs and cultures? We must first differentiate between the layman’s definition of a theory, and the scientific definition. A theory is seen by many as simply being an educated guess, or a hunch. A scientific theory, however, is supported by a large body of evidence and observation. We can also ensure that ideas like creationism or intelligent design are taught in philosophy, comparative religion, or world cultures classes.

Though we may all have different religious beliefs, we can all agree that our children deserve the best science education possible. For more on this topic, please read Patte’s entire column, “The Big Bang, the ‘God Particle,’ and You.” — Ashwini Yelamanchili

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