Evolving debate in schools


Published: Saturday, January 7, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 7, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
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Under the shadow of a Columbian Mammoth, visitors wander the lobby of the Florida Museum of Natural History Thursday afternoon. The debate in schools over science and religion remains in the forefront.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun
Wesley Elsberry was first inspired to speak against the melding of religion and science 20 years ago in a University of Florida classroom.
There a visiting geologist espoused the Biblically based idea that the Earth was just thousands of years old, rather than the billions of years believed by most scientists.
"That's pretty annoying that they can get it that wrong," Elsberry said. "I could not let that stand."
The UF graduate has since made it his mission to keep religious beliefs about the scientific world out of public school classrooms. Now the information project director for the National Center for Science Education, he spoke to guides at the Florida Museum of Natural History this week about explaining evolution to school groups and other museum visitors.
The debate about religion in schools has in recent months centered around intelligent design, which suggests that life's complexities show a higher being played a role in creation. A federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled last month that teaching the concept was an unconstitutional promotion of religion, but the idea continues to be a part of school curricula in Kansas, Ohio and other states.
In Florida, science advocates and educators are looking to the revision of the state's school standards as having the potential for a debate over the issue. The revision of the science standards has been delayed until 2007, but in the meantime school districts are confronting the topic on their own.
The Marion County School District now instructs teachers to point students curious about intelligent design to a book and DVD by proponents that is carried in its libraries. But in Alachua County, school administrators say they haven't yet faced questions about how evolution is taught.
Even proponents of intelligent design here say they would like the idea to be part of classroom discussions, but are not looking for a battle.
"To me, I don't see why there has to be a big problem," said the Rev. Lloyd Jones, pastor of North Central Baptist Church
Jones comes from an unusual perspective on the subject, as a religious leader who happens to have a doctorate in electrical engineering. He's also a so-called young-Earth creationist, believing the Bible's account of creation in Genesis shows God creating life in seven days and that the Earth is thus 10,000-15,000 years old.
While the generally accepted age for the Earth is about 4.55 billion years, Jones teaches that religious beliefs don't have to conflict with being a serious scientist.
"I like to make sure college students know you can be real smart . . . and believe the Bible is God's word," he said.
Jones believes intelligent design should be allowed to be discussed in classrooms, but some question whether doing so injects religion into schools.
Eileen Roy, member of the Alachua County School Board, said intelligent design is a religious idea that doesn't belong in a science class.
"It's not science," she said "It's not derived from the scientific method. It can't be tested, proved or disproved."
Alachua County schools don't teach intelligent design because they strictly follow the state standards on science, said Sandy Hollinger, deputy superintendent for curriculum. While avoiding the word "evolution," those standards say "the fossil record provides evidence that changes in the kinds of plants and animals in the environment have been occurring over time."
Some speculate the new version of the standards could allow some mention of intelligent design. Statements by Gov. Jeb Bush and his appointment of a public schools chancellor sympathetic to intelligent-design proponents show the idea could be forced into the standards, said Pierce Butler, a Gainesville resident and member of Florida Citizens for Science.
"There's a chance it could happen if pro-science advocates don't speak up," he said.
Bush issued a statement last month saying schools "should encourage the vigorous discussion of varying viewpoints." He has also appointed as K-12 Public Schools Chancellor Cheri Pierson Yecke, who said while in a similar position in Minnesota that school districts should be able to decide whether the issue is addressed in classrooms.
Some Florida districts have already incorporated intelligent design in their schools to some extent.
Marion County instructs its teachers to address the controversy when asked and direct students interested in intelligent design to a book and DVD on the issue, said Nancy Livesay, district curriculum coordinator for math, science and school improvement
"We don't teach intelligent design," she said. "We want them to treat it as one of many controversial issues."
Some science teachers here say they'd be uncomfortable with such an approach. Becky Moulton, a chemistry teacher at Eastside High School, said the debate misses the point of science, which is putting theories through rigorous testing and incorporating only those that are well-supported.
"You can't teach religion because you can't test it," she said.
Even some proponents of intelligent design have accepted that evolution might be a permanent fixture in science classes. Richard Horner, director of the Christian Study Center of Gainesville and the parent of children in public schools, said he's resigned himself to the fact that he won't agree with everything they're taught and believes confrontations with schools are "not particularly helpful.
"I'm definitely for humble, compassionate conversation," he said.
Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 338-3176 or crabben@ gvillesun.com.

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